I, Thief — Notes from the Purloining Life
The very, very first time I remember clear as daylight.
I was pretty small. Maybe six. On some outing with a babysitter. A friend of my working mom. She and her kid and her van and some stores.
When we got back, because I didn’t know any better, I showed my mom the small thing I pilfered right in front the babysitter. I won't say what it was. Something shiny and dumb.
Mom told the babysitter “You didn’t have to buy anything that was so sweet,” and then she said “But I didn’t.”
Smiles faded fast then. Clouds rolled in over my mother’s brow, and the babysitter went home. I don’t think I ever saw them again.
And because my mother’s embarrassment was great, she knocked me around and had me wait in my room until my father arrived. By the time he did he took one look at me and figured mom had done enough damage. Come downstairs now, kid. Time for dinner anyway.
I suppose I did know better. I knew you had to exchange money for goods. I knew I didn’t have any money. But that didn’t keep me from trying. That didn’t stop me from figuring out that, if I was careful, I could get away with something that would not only be mine to keep, but might come along with a magnificent feeling—the heady nausea of adrenaline afterglow.
We went back to the store from whence I had taken the item. I told the lady at the counter what happened and gave it back and acted all contrite like mom said, and she was very cordial about it, and that was that. I got the impression from how she spoke she just thought the whole thing was cute. Probably wasn’t there when it happened in the first place.
Punitive measures from parents usually come from a place of misunderstanding. If I asked my mother about this event today, she would most likely say she doesn’t remember a thing.
But I comprehended something else in an understated way, even at that age. My parents were poor.
We weren’t destitute, certainly. But dad’s jobs were always in question and mom kept a lock-tight budget, and after awhile I just stopped asking for things because I was constantly told no. You start to assume the answer is no after a while. So you either take the no, or you make your own yes.
I was an artistic kid who wanted to experiment with looks, so when mom was done taking me to the thrift store for back to school shopping (where she must have thought I got everything, because she never asked me about any of my clothes), I hoofed it to the mall.
Ah. The Mall. Many a warm late summer day spent in its confines, layering one pair of pants under another. Putting a nice shirt on underneath a not-so-nice one. Trading a pair of old shoes for new. Pulling off tags and staying away from anything with a magnetic button attached to it.
Around that same time I was inspired by a group of fellow teenagers I knew from school. I didn’t have a clique of people to hang with, but somehow I could appreciate their easy camaraderie without feeling jealous. One day a few of us we’re talking about the weekend and Tony says “We went 5.45-ing.” Or something like “We held a meeting at the 5.45 Club.”
Turns out, from boredom, they had all gone to Wal-Mart for something to do. They got hungry and picked up a bag of fried chicken from the hot bar and walked around and ate it and left. The bag of chicken would have cost them $5.45.
Perfect. A code word. Now we’re talking. And now I know: Wal-Mart is fair game.
Shortly after that another fair game came into play, so easy in fact it almost didn’t seem fair: Epcot Center.
On my first trip into the delightful dizzying Disney World, I bought a rug in “Morocco” and had them put it in the biggest bag they had. Then I carried that thing around for a whole day and proceeded to abscond with what I conservatively estimate to be just over $500 worth of merchandise.
And I’m still puzzled as to why it was so easy. Someone must have seen me and just decided I wasn’t worth the headache. I’ll never really know.
My parents weren’t there. I didn’t even hang out with my friends most of the day. I didn’t do this to show off. I did it out of a genuine desire. Out of a coldness, too. Money felt like a false barrier and a ridiculous exchange and I wanted to be on the other side of it. To side-step the process nearly altogether.
With an almost electric fondness do I recall this incredible, ample gauntlet. I still have some treasures I took from there and enjoy. The rest were given as gifts or used up.
Again, I return home with all this booty from a class trip, and mom doesn’t say a thing. I’m doing fine in the report card department, so I guess she doesn’t care.
After all that, it’s funny. I started to notice something. The oddest phenomena. I would go into a place not intending to shoplift at all. I earnestly went in with money to buy goods. And then… it was as if certain items just wanted to be free. I would merely look at something random and it nearly cried out to be taken. “Just please finally liberate me from this awful place,” it seemed to say.
There is a theory out there about the life in objects. Shoplifting showed me that maybe there’s some truth to it.
It was a long time before I ever heard the phrase "five finger discount." In the business, it’s called “slippage.”
From a synopsis, posted on Goodreads.com, of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir:
The Steal begins when shoplifting entered the modern record as urbanization and consumerism made London into Europe's busiest mercantile capital. Crossing the channel to nineteenth-century Paris, Shteir tracks the rise of the department store and the pathologizing of shoplifting as kleptomania. In 1960s America, shoplifting becomes a symbol of resistance when the publication of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book popularizes shoplifting as an anti-establishment act. Some contemporary analysts see our current epidemic as a response to a culture of hyper-consumerism; others question whether its upticks can be tied to economic downturns at all. Few provide convincing theories about why it goes up or down.
Just as experts can't agree on why people shoplift, they can't agree on how to stop it. Shoplifting has been punished by death, discouraged by shame tactics, and protected against by high-tech surveillance. Shoplifters have been treated by psychoanalysis, medicated with pharmaceuticals, and enforced by law to attend rehabilitation groups. While a few individuals have abandoned their sticky-fingered habits, shoplifting shows no signs of slowing.
Kerry Segrave’s book offers more angles:
Shoplifting: A Social History looks at the activity of shoplifting for the last 140 years: the types of people singled out as the principal offenders, retailers' ambivalent responses to the activity, selective prosecution, the utilization of high-tech antitheft devices, and suing shoplifters to recover costs. Also examined are media accounts which have often used exaggerated numbers when discussing the activity and the effect of private justice on the offense. Discrepancies in treatment of lower-class women versus "respectable" women shoplifters will be of interest to women's studies scholars.
After that first time when small, I never got caught again. And I won't. It was and still is, unacceptable to me to be caught shoplifting as an adult. My personal embarrassment and abject shame would be, to me, as equally mortifying now as it was to my mother then. Superego can’t handle.
I can’t tell you the last thing I boosted. It was probably foodstuffs. I still salute the 5.45 Club by eating my way around the grocery store as I shop.
But I don’t play snatch-and-nab at all any more. And I stick to one basic tenant: Don’t be greedy. Greed will get you caught. Greed will stick you up and take more than you came in with. Keep your own bullshit meter attuned careful. When you feel greediness kick in, put it all down and leave immediately.