Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Thief

This is a true story as told to me by my father.
A few years ago, he visited his club and met up with an old friend from his youth named Roy. They sat down over lunch and had a nice long chat catching up after so many years. My father shared his adventures through life, and Roy shared his. And in Roy's life adventure was buried an interesting lesson or two.
It all started back in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In Toronto there is an area that is now quite an expensive enclave of Victorian homes that have been restored and are owned by wealthy people.
But back in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s it was a very poor area indeed. It is called Cabbagetown, because the people in those days used to grow cabbages in their tiny little postage-stamp-sized yards, in order to have food to eat. It was a rough neighborhood full of rough people going through a rough time.
My father grew up there in that time. They lived in different houses, changing almost every year. But always they remained in Cabbagetown. As the eldest child in a family of nine that could not afford to feed the lot of them on a printer’s salary, he was sent out to the streets to make his own way in the world when he was only 15 years old. He was almost entirely deaf, so it was no longer possible to go to school, and it was difficult for a deaf street kid to find work, as well. It was a tough time living on the streets for a couple of years. He made friends with a less than desirable crowd. Roy was one of those less than sterling companions. He had taken to sitting on the top of his garage at night and dropping a brick onto the heads of drunks that wandered by, so he could take whatever money they had left, drag their body around the corner into the alley, and then climb back up and sit and wait for the next drunk to come along.
Finally one day, Roy had the idea to break into one of the huge mansions of Rosedale and steal their valuables. These are huge mansions and many were the homes of "old money’ families from England, that had come over to Canada 150 years ago to settle there. They were the original aristocracy and wealthy landowners. They were the people who had founded the country. These were their ancestral homes for generations and generations. He had heard someone say there was one family going on vacation and would be away for a few weeks, so he decided to make his strike then. This particular family did go on vacation as expected, and he broke into the house, searched around until he found the lady’s hidden jewelry, then left with that in a bag. He took it home and, for the moment, he stuffed the bag of jewelry into the hole in the brick wall over his garage, and covered it up.
He met with my father a few days later and told him what he had done, and also wondered what he should do with the jewelry to keep it safe while the police were looking for it. Roy was afraid to try to fence any of the pieces because they were so ‘hot’ still that no fence or pawnbroker would take them, or if they did, they certainly wouldn’t give him a decent price for them.
In the end, he decided to place the bag of jewelry in the safest place he could think of. A bank!
So he went to the bank and rented a safe-deposit box and stuffed the bag inside it, and locked it away. Now he knew no one would find it nor would any of his ‘friends’ be able to steal it from him.
With that nest-egg safely tucked away, he breathed a sigh of relief and turned his attention to making a living. It didn’t really matter what he did now, because he knew that he was already rich. He was really just biding his time. He already had the money stashed away in the bank just waiting for the right time to pull it out one piece at a time and cash it in and spend it.
He was set for life – he just had to wait a while. Perhaps a year or so, he thought. In the meantime, he would just pick up any kind of opportunities he could think of to make a living.
So he tried a variety of several different companies. He brought in Christmas trees from the country and sold them from a lot in downtown Toronto. That was profitable, but obviously seasonal. He tried painting houses, but that was a disaster. He tried to do home repairs, but that ended badly too. Even his landscaping business was a flop. In fact one homeowner was threatening to sue. But it just didn’t matter, he knew he couldn’t really fail. He just tried one business after another while he was waiting for the right moment to go and get that jewelry.
But then, several months and several businesses later, a funny thing happened. One of his businesses started to pick up. He had started it by picking up some scrap metal from a factory and loading onto his pickup truck and taking it to a metal smelter who bought it off him. Then he went to various other factories and did the same. He would pick up their old metal scrap and then take it to the smelter and sell it to them. He became familiar with all the factories in the whole downtown area. He knew who to see on what days in order to pick up their scrap metal. To them, he was doing them a favor by carting it away. But it was worth something to the smelters, so he always had a place to sell as much as he could collect. It got so that he needed a place to take it for the interim so that he could sort out the different types of metal and get a better price for the batches. So he rented a fenced lot. He would bring the truckloads of scrap there, sort iot into piles by metal type, and then take one load at a time of each metal type to the smelter. This little scrap business started to grow. Soon, he found he needed a second pickup truck and hired a few men to help. Then a third truck. Then more men. Well, he kept growing it and growing it. He totally immersed himself in it. The months went by. Then a couple of years went by as he continued to grow this business successfully.
He met a woman, and got married. He had no real worries about income because his scrap business was doing well, and of course he still had the jewelry back at the bank. But for now the business was giving him everything he needed. By this time, he had come to think of the jewelry as a backup plan, rather than his primary plan for success. He and his wife soon had children.
The children grew. The years started flying by.
His scrap metal business had now turned into quite a nice business worth several million dollars. It was very successful, but very time and energy consuming.
He realized that he no longer needed the nest-egg in the bank safety deposit box, so he just left it there for a rainy day. After all, he had seen rough times and he knew that rough times would come again someday and he wanted to be ready for them. He just knew that the good times wouldn’t last forever.
One day the economy might fail, and if it did, his business might easily fail, and if that happened, then he still had his fallback plan. His jewelry nest-egg would make sure that his family would always be well taken care of.
But the economy didn’t fail beyond the normal recessions that come every decade. The business remained intact – and thrived. The years went by. His daughters grew up and were married and had their own children. So far his business was still flourishing. He had never told his wife or family about the jewelry back in the bank safety deposit box. He kept it hidden as a dark secret about his youth. He had become an honest businessman. He didn’t have to lie or cheat or steal from anyone, and he had become a very upstanding member of the community. He was a wealthy man now. He employed a large number of people. Lots of people looked up to him. His wife and family looked up to him. He couldn’t let them know he had stolen that jewelry. That meant he was a thief. It was his dirty little secret from a distant past, and he couldn’t tell anyone about it. It was his secret shame. He had come to wish he had never broken into that house in Rosedale so many years ago when he was young.
Meanwhile, his business continued to grow.
Finally, one day, when he was 66 years old, he went to the doctor and the doctor told him he had a heart problem and he wasn’t going to live much more than a year.
He started thinking about what he wanted to do in that last year he had left. He had never really been an especially religious man, but, like a lot of people when they come to the last stages of their life, he found he had been thinking about God lately and he started to think about what was going to happen once he died. He realized that that jewelry that he had stolen as a youth and had kept as his dirty little secret for almost 50 years, was going to be a black mark on his record. It marred his soul, and that started to eat at him. He started to feel guilty. He thought about it every day, but couldn’t tell his family or anyone about it because he had to keep it secret.
Finally, he couldn’t stand the feelings of guilt any longer. He decided he wanted to make it right. He wanted to make reparations to the family that he had stolen from. He wanted to wipe the slate clean, and he wanted it clean before he died – and he was running out of time.
So he hired a private detective to look into the family of that home he had robbed so many years before. He remembered the address, and gave it to the detective. It turned out that the house was one of the ancestral family homes of the area, and that family had lived there for well over a hundred years. That family still lived there. Probably not the actual lady of the house at the time from 50 years before, but her children still lived there.
So he planned a visit to them.
But he thought it wouldn’t be proper reparation if he just simply handed back the jewelry and said "sorry". He had had the use of it for 50 years.
Although he never did sell any of it, he at least knew it was there and having that safety net there gave him the courage and confidence to try all those businesses until he found one that succeeded. When he really thought about it, he came to realize that that really was the core of his success.
Without the knowledge of having that to fall back on, he never would have tried the things he did to make a business successful. He never would have made the investments or taken the risks he needed to to survive. He owed that family more than just simply returning it.
So he sent the jewelry in to be appraised and he planned that he would give them interest on the value of the jewelry. He started to worry about that.
He did a few calculations about what the interest would add up to over 50 years. He started to think that perhaps if he just paid them DOUBLE what it was worth, in todays values – that would be enough of a sincere gesture to ease his guilt and hive him the open door to heave he was looking for.
The result came back from the appraiser.
The jewelry turned out to be costume jewelry. It was completely worthless.
When he had taken it, he was young, he didn’t know real jewelry from imitation jewelry. He just made an assumption that a wealthy woman living in a huge mansion like that would have real jewelery. All his life he lived thinking that he had a nest egg there. A safety net. He always felt that he could not fail and so he didn’t. He did make it work. No matter what came up, he could always just take it calmly know that nothing could ever really hurt him.
Now, looking back, he realized that It didn’t matter that the jewelry was fake. All that mattered in this case was that he THOUGHT it was real, and so he acted as though it were real, and that allowed him to do what was needed to be successful. His attitude made all the difference.


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