The Ethical Dilemma of a Sandwich Down the Pants

We queue up at the Li'l Peach, the one on the town-gown line in Cambridge, and we're dying. The woman paying the cashier is digging around for exact change, and we all want to yell "It would take way less time to break a fiver!" but we are all too chicken. We're just strangers with a common goal. We shift from foot to foot, juggling our purchases from hand to hand. We are impatient, but we're honest. We wait to pay.

I examine my Rollo, and the cashier yells, "¡Oye! Put it back!" My heart leaps, but she is not talking to me. She leaves the counter and approaches a stringy-haired man next to the open cooler. I debate dropping the candy and running, but I really crave that delicious bite-sized combination of caramel and chocolate. It will sustain me for three more hours of grading final exams for the tenured professor. So I hold my place. We all wonder why the cashier, a Dominican woman, probably as old as my mom, all of five feet tall, bothers to confront a shoplifter.

The guy isn't wearing a jacket, because it's still eighty outside, although it's past midnight. A coat would have provided him a relatively clean repository for the sandwich he had tried to steal. Instead, he had shoved it down the front of his pants.

"You give it back, now!" The cashier continues in a Spanglish tirade. Those of us still waiting in line relax, because we can see that the guy isn't packing heat.

For a moment, he pretends that he hasn't done anything wrong. He shakes his head and shrugs. "¡Dámelo! I call the policía," the cashier screams.

The perp removes a small cellophaned lump from his pants, hands it to his accuser, and scoots to the side. He takes the long way around the register to escape so that she can't tackle him. That bulge in his cut-offs had been a turkey and swiss on white, with yellow mustard. Without comment, the cashier throws the sandwich back into the cooler and resumes her post, ringing up the Funyuns and Diet Coke on the grimy counter.

I am six people from the front of the line, and someone is requesting a complex assortment of lottery tickets. The longer I wait, the more I want somebody to buy that sandwich. Every time a new customer walks by the cooler, I perk up. So does everybody else in the queue.

The sandwich-eater has to deserve it. We all know this.

If a poor old woman came in, carefully counting out her change, amassed from returning six garbage bags of cans for the deposits, and choosing what she thought was the most nutritious item in the case, and it was that glob of gluten and meat, I am sure that we all would advise her not to eat it. Black, white, Asian, it wouldn't matter. We would treat her like our own Abuelita. We wouldn't let her eat the stoner-crotch sandwich.

She would come over to the line, and the man at the end would turn to her and say, "Ma'am, I'll hold your place if you want to exchange that sandwich for another one. Because a few minutes ago, a guy shoved it down his pants." She would look at the other faces in line, just to verify. We all would nod solemnly. "Thank you, son," she would say, shuffling back over to select ham instead.

But she doesn't come in.

Just as I begin to pay for my Rollo, a couple of drunken Harvard students enter, wearing VE RI TAS t-shirts and blithering about parties in This House or That. I recognize these ones. I lead their Ethical Theory section. They skip a lot. It's nothing personal, but I don't want them to hold me up with chitchat, so I stare at my Birkenstocks.

My fellow line-waiters are amassing their telekinetic power, pushing the young men toward the sandwich cooler. I know it's wrong to want one of my own students to select the defiled sandwich, but my brain hurts from reading blue books, so I join in the mind-meld.

It works. Since the down-the-pants-wich perches on the top of the pile, the taller guy grabs it. An electric feeling goes through the line. Nobody looks at each other. We are terrified of stymieing the purchase. I hear the skinny woman in front of me say "yes!" and pump her fist discreetly. The cashier gives me a wink with my change, and I throw a buck into her tip jar.

The tall student is smart. If he knew what we know, he would try to make us feel guilty by pilfering from Kant: You all must consider your moral duties in this situation, as well as the rights of others. Then he'd look right at me and recite his blue book-worthy argument.

"Stuffing a sandwich into one's trousers is not wrong. Stealing it, or nastifying a sandwich meant for public consumption, is. The man sweating in his Daisy Dukes is down by one.

"Throwing that sandwich back into the cooler instead of the trash is not okay. The cashier is also down by one.

"Walking around drunk and buying a sandwich, as long as you don't vomit on anyone, is fine.

"Seeing someone buy the filthy sandwich is not wrong (even though Teaching Assistant stipends come from the same pocket as that $2.99). Watching someone take a bite out of it, without intervening, flinging one's body between the mouth and the sandwich and screaming 'NOOOO!' if necessary, is definitely immoral.

"You taught me that," he'd say.

So I walk away before I see him eat it.

About the author:

Kelly Shriver lives in 52403, where she experiences fewer distractions than she did while living in 60657, 10002, or 02215. She co-edits Bound Off, a podcast of short stories.