'Kidnapped' saint offers lesson in logic of larceny


August 29, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Eastern Avenue, Anton the Thief displays his latest bit of business, a 3-foot-high statue of an anciently garbed man that seems to have been made of some kind of highly impressive imitation marble.

"You know who this is?" Anton the Thief asks.

"Somebody famous?" a guy says.

"St. Francis of Assisi," Anton the Thief declares with religious fervor.

"You stole a saint?"

"Not stole him," Anton corrects. "Kidnapped him. Now I'm ransoming him."

A gentle breeze wafts its way up Eastern Avenue, and so does Anton's gaze. He is looking for possible customers, preferably religious souls with money to spend. Standing beside Anton the Thief is his wife, who confirms that the statue is, indeed, St. Francis. She is considered something of a religious expert, having attended Sunday school once in her youth. The wife's name is Dora, although for formal newspaper interviews she is known as Mrs. Thief.

"But this is a saint," a second guy says to Anton. "It's a holy man. TC You can't go around swiping holy men."

"Wrong," Anton quickly declares. He looks a little sensitive about this, a little defensive, a man braced in advance for an onslaught of disapproval.

"See," he says, "I've looked into this thing. You look at your Bible, you'll see."


"Bible," says Anton. "Ain't nothing in the Bible about one kind of stealing being worse than another kind of stealing. It just says stealing. The Bible doesn't say, 'Stealing a TV set is bad, but stealing a statue of a saint is worse.' Stealing's just stealing. So what's the difference?"

In a world where morality is on permanent leave, this is logic to live by. For the last decade now, Anton and Mrs. Thief have been stealing with missionary fervor to support their drug habits. In a city with about 60,000 addicts, this makes them part of a large army.

About 21,000 persons a year are convicted of crimes in this city. The cops estimate that about 75 percent of all crime is drug related, a figure that involves thievery of all kinds. In this kind of climate, is anyone surprised that an occasional religious figure is among the casualties?

The statue of St. Francis is actually quite lovely. Anton the Thief holds it up and suggests running your hands over it. It's an off-white imitation marble, with a couple of birds perched atop the shoulders of the 13th century saint who was known for his love of nature and animals.

"Gotta be $300," Anton the Thief says.

"You think you're gonna get $300 for this?" he is asked.

"No, I'll settle for $70," he says. "But it's worth $300. That's what the store wanted for it."

No way, he is told, are people going to pay money for a stolen saint.

"No way?" says Anton.

"No way."

But now, on Eastern Avenue, a remarkable thing begins to happen. People are stopping to examine St. Francis.

They admire the fine workmanship, the beatific look on the face of the statue, the graceful sweep of the fine imitation marble.

In their admiration, everyone talks price, and no one talks ethics.

"Look at them birds," says a woman pushing a little shopping basket. "St. Francis liked them birds, didn't he?"

"I think he was their patron saint," says Anton the Thief. "If you read your Bible."

St. Francis having lived long after the New Testament was written, this is misleading but not entirely misguided. St. Francis's love of nature is one of his best-remembered characteristics, and he is generally represented in art as surrounded by animals.

"Is that marble," a man in a checkered sports coat asks, "or is it ivory?"

"Not real marble, I wouldn't think," says Anton's wife, Mrs. Thief. She's trying to show a little honesty. "But it's a quality piece of work."

Behind the man in the sports coat and the woman with the shopping basket come more potential buyers, one after the other, all admiring of the sculpture, all inquiring about price, and none asking about the conditions under which St. Francis of Assisi winds up on Eastern during lunch hour.

"Where is it? Where is it?" a woman in a white waitress' outfit cries now, rushing up to see the statue. She takes one glance, and a wave of disappointment washes over her face.

"Oh," she says sadly, running her hands gently over the figure. "It's St. Francis you're selling. I heard it was the Holy Mother."

It goes this way for maybe 20 minutes. Everybody's interested, but nobody quite has $70 to put together for a statue, even if it does mean rescuing St. Francis from his kidnappers.

Times are tough, and money is scarce.

Also, things being how they are, Anton the Thief is getting a little nervous about the police and wishes to change location.

"What'll you do," he is asked, "if you can't find a buyer?"

"I don't know," he says. "Maybe sell it to some priest."

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