Kingdom of Babes
My first was Smurfette. I found her lying in the middle of the polished floor of the TG&Y five-and-dime off Michoud Boulevard in New Orleans East, where I’d begged my Ecuadorian grandmother, Lala, to take me to buy my very first Smurf doll. Well, “doll” isn’t the right word. When I was four, I called all my two-inch-tall plastic toys “babes,” same as my four-year-old daughter calls them now. She’s collected babes in the hundreds, as I once did, but unlike me, my daughter hasn’t stolen any of them.
Lala grabbed Smurfette from my hand. “No tiene precio,” she said, citing its absent price tag. “Eso quiere decir que nos dan gratis.” I didn’t understand, even as she went on to explain, how something could be free if stores were inherently transactional. You gave money to get something back that you want or need. Even kids knew that.
“¡Cállate!” she shushed me. She set her purse down and instructed me to play with the babe just over it, and to drop her in, “accidentalmente.” Instead I threw Smurfette aimlessly onto the floor, sprinted down the toiletry aisle, and whisper-yelled in Spanish, “Did I do it right?” Lala quickly fixed my mistake and power-walked us toward freedom just beyond the store’s glass doors. She said, more to herself than me, “Ay Dios mio, tengo que hacer todo.” A minute later, out in the concrete heat, Lala dug through her purse to extract my prize. I held my babe close, proud of what felt not like a crime, but an accomplishment. “Next time,” I said, “let’s take Gargamel.”
Over the years Lala delighted in helping me build my kingdom of babes, whether we bought or stole them. She often reminded me what a great joy it was to spoil me, since my single mother was always off working and no good at spoiling (Lala said “working” as if my mother were off clubbing all day, “ay, ese trabajo”). The hinge on whether or not to steal was the presence or absence of a price tag. Back then they were half the size of a postage stamp, basically just stickers. There were no scanners, or bar codes. Lala got it into her head that if there was no price tag, we couldn’t technically get in trouble. She’d scour through bins of toys to find one that was limpio, or where the tag was so flimsily applied that she could use her long fingernail to easily slide it off. If we got questioned, we could say the item was already ours. We bought it here last week and la niña wanted to bring her toy on our shopping trip, and how dare they accuse us of anything, that’s racist, ¡que descaro!
“What if there’s cameras?” I once asked. I’d seen cameras capturing thieves on television, and even though those thieves were of the Hamburgler variety, wearing the “I’m about to rob you” uniform of black masks with eyehole cutouts, I was still worried about video evidence.
“Ay, que miedra. We’ll say we don’t know who those people are, but they’re not us.” That Lala could be shown and deny the purest form of evidence against her and say, “nope, not me,” showed the genius in her madness. And that despite herself, after years of ranting about sticking it to The Man and the desgracio of electing that muñeco-faced actor Reagan for a president, Lala had truly become an American.
What else has no price tags? we must’ve tacitly wondered at some point. Grapes didn’t, so we began stealing them constantly from Schwegmann’s. They came in huge bins we’d bag ourselves and eat while we shopped, then we unloaded whatever we didn’t finish back into the bin before checkout. Other fruit was up for grabs, though the gummy mess it left behind made me cringe. Once Lala ate a peach with a slow sublimity, wiping her mouth now and again with a pocket tissue, and left the pit behind some cans of tuna. In these gringo grocery stores, she also introduced me to ventriloquist eating, which was chewing while only minimally moving your jaw. Que rico, verdad? She insisted it tasted better that way.
We never stole anything of real value, like the 14K gold jewelry that had covered my body since birth: gold rings on each hand, gold stud earrings, a nameplate gold necklace that Lala and my mother slept me in, choking hazard be damned. Pedro Lopez, an Ecuadorian too, owned Lopez’s, a jewelry shop off Veterans Boulevard in Metairie. Pedro’s right eye was usually fixed through a jeweler’s loupe, giving him a cyclopsian look, and his fusty breath filled the whole room. It was for these reasons, and not necessarily his racism, that I disliked him. “Gracias a dios I finally got the shop into a White neighborhood,” he said on our first trip to his new location. Ironically, he and Lala talked about theft a lot, how he was armed, and how he wouldn’t let coño negros come in here and take his merchandise. “But you just said this was a White neighborhood,” I thought to myself, trying to make sense of the senseless. I never understood Lala’s hierarchy of racism, either, which placed Ecuadorians at the very top, with Asians several rungs lower (with the exception of Chinos, who were dirty); Blacks and Whites lay underneath them, interchangeable depending on her mood; and Mexicans and Guatemalans sat at the very bottom. She talked a lot about orgullo, or pride in being one of us, but I had no idea what that meant. She pointed to no particular tradition or historical event, because for her it was self-evident. Maybe I didn’t want to probe it further because I was half-Italian, which translates to half-White, and for Lala, most Whites were cara de mierda. Did this mean I was one-half “fuck face”? I didn’t want to know. At Lopez’s that day, Lala described to Pedro with gusto how thieves got what they deserved. They went straight to prison to get culo-fucked, she said, which made me wonder if Lala understood that we stole, too. I scanned Lopez’s rows of lighted gold jewelry, and inwardly picked out what I’d steal if I asked for Lala’s permission nicely enough.
Several years ago, as Lala was laid up in her Wynhoven Nursing Home bed and I lotioned her pale, skinny legs, I asked her if she remembers our thieving days, and why we did it. “Estas loca,” she replied. “Yo no fui.” Lala’s had a lifelong habit of denying or “forgetting” any memory that didn’t fit her current narrative of propriety. It’s true that in her last years, dementia might have caused her to forget, but when I brought up Smurfette, how I tried stealing her so ineptly, Lala winked at me. Though when I said, “Mierda, you just winked!” she denied that, too.
Like with so many of my Lala stories, I thought that the answer for her behavior was simple. She was loca. Or at least, she wanted to be thought of as crazy, because she loved the attention, because she thrived on being the woman who would do what others wouldn’t. Once she exacted revenge on her unfaithful husband by shoving a hot pepper up his asshole, to give just one perfectly normal example. But more than wanting to be thought of as powerful, she didn’t want to look weak. There is a distinction.
Though we didn’t discuss it, Lala was incredibly vulnerable in the world of American commerce. She never learned to speak or read English, even years after emigrating to the U.S. from Ecuador in the 1960s. But because my Abuelo worked, Lala kept up their home and was expected to shop for all the things. When she wrote a check, a common form of payment in those days, she had to do it English. So when it came time to pay, she kept a well-worn paper in the plastic covering of her checkbook, with the numerals one through one-hundred written out in English. It occurs to me now, half a lifetime after our first steal, that Lala may not have wanted to ask a TG&Y employee for the price. Or even have me ask an employee for her. When we shopped for groceries, she added up the numbers in her head to get a close total estimate. Growing up, I was her translator, and she sometimes had fun with that. For instance, she’d suggest I tell an employee that he had a “cara de verga,” thus forcing me to lie in translation about what she’d actually said, which was “penis face.” But it was also a sign of weakness that she couldn’t do the talking on her own. Perhaps this was why she could steal babes for me, or steal food for herself, and pretend it was an accidente if she got caught.
She loved lording the little power she had over others, and that often came in the form of using a language most others didn’t. When I wasn’t fretting over getting caught, I was concerned that someone would understand Lala was talking loudly about them, since she did it constantly. Once, as we walked onto a Macy’s elevator going down from the third floor, a woman in a pink pantsuit held the door open us. Lala waved her hand in front of her face and said, “oy, esa mujer iso un pedo.” She said the elevator stunk, and accused the woman of having farted. “¡Cállate!” I begged her. And then, looking straight ahead, the woman responded. “Senora, yo no fui. Sera que usted o su nieta pedo?” She threw the accusation right back on both of us, guessing the culprit might be Lala, or me. After the woman exited the elevator, Lala called after her, “oye, buen hecho!” Good one, lady! Lala laughed about the pedo incident the rest of the day, but I was mortified she got caught talking shit. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if we got caught stealing.
The reason we eventually stopped is because I forced it. Lala was just so ostentatious about everything, it seemed like she’d be happy to get caught. Maybe wanted the chance to haughtily deny her theft, or apologize for her mistake, me-no-speaka-de-Engleesh. I didn’t wish to translate any of these possible scenarios. It was hard enough getting caught in the elevator in Spanish. If we got caught in English, the explaining would be left to me. Lala’s ethos dictated that the most important thing was to be interesting, and as I slid closer to adolescence, I desired more than anything, at least for a time, to be calm, quiet, good. One day when Lala asked if I wanted a treat from the TG&Y, I said, “I’m too big for these kinds of toys.” I shuttered my kingdom of babes, and that was that for stealing with Lala.
My last was a couple of years ago: a box of 126 Pampers from Publix. It was an innocent-enough mistake. My grocery cart was overflowing, my then-toddler daughter was whining, and a portion of my two-hundred-plus-dollars spent was for a My Little Pony knockoff, one of my daughter’s favorite types of babes. “I need it, Mom,” she said, and who was I to argue. I finally found my checkbook in the fifth zipper compartment of my hateful purse. I often get dirty looks when I use my checkbook at the grocery. The cashier has to type in a bunch of stuff into the keypad. I sometimes imagine she’s typing a message to The Man, “another loser customer writes a check.” And I guess I am a loser, I want to scream at the cashier and the customers in line behind me, since the reason I’m writing a check is because I don’t get paid for three days and I’ve already figured out this grocery store doesn’t cash checks for four days. I’m an underpaid English instructor, which means I’m always broke but can’t righteously complain about being poor, so get off my back! This is why I write out the check completely before I get in line, leaving blank only the space for the total cost, just like Lala used to do. I can’t imagine having to do this in a language I don’t understand, since even in my fluency this simple transaction is stressful as hell.
Anyway, this was my mindset when I unloaded my cart that day. Added to this, the cashier didn’t know what she was doing. She was just the kind of cashier Lala would’ve loved, this Casey, as her nametag read. Lala would have said something simple and kind in English, “hi, girl,” then in Spanish she would’ve loudly said “mamahuevo” (translated: a slightly-less-harsh version of “cocksucker”). Casey was flustered from both scanning and bagging, and now dealing with my check. I’d planned to directly hand her the diapers sitting on the cart’s undercarriage, but just then my daughter scooted toward the Redbox dispenser, so I had to wrangle her back. I held my daughter under my left arm and wrote out the rest of the check with the right, then helped Casey load the rest of the bags into the cart. The diapers were gratis; I got a forty dollar discount.
I wondered after I left Publix that day, and still do, if this was Lala’s rationale for stealing. She had the money to get by, but maybe not as much as she wanted. A box of Pampers means lots fewer future babes. Maybe stealing helped her save where she could. Or she vaguely wanted to stick it to The Man, one of the many White ones who owned the stores and ran the world. Or it was her way of saying “fuck you” in two languages. Or she wanted to see what she could get away with. Or she wanted to teach me something about risk and reward and earning the things I liked. Or she just fucking did it, and liked it. As I did, once upon a time.
If Lala were there to witness my accidente at Publix that day, who knows, she might have insisted that I return to the store to pay for it. And I would have, though I would remind her to recognize an interesting experience when she sees one, just how she taught me. Once I exited the grocery and stepped into the concrete heat, I thought, “Next time, I’ll stack a large pack of wet wipes down there, too.” Like I tell my daughter when she makes a mistake, it’s okay, accidents happen.