On that lowering horizon, on that day I keep trying to forget, the charcoal sky has begun burning rain. My paper shopping bag tears unseamlessly—paper, not plastic because I am that politically correct. My cans of black beans roll everywhere, and I’m cold and now I’m sobbing. Just a month earlier I was spending most of my time crying for my father. I said the Kaddish; I spoke at his grave. I talked to my therapist and to the president of my college who assured me that my students would understand, would welcome me back with loving hearts and grace.
They wouldn’t understand this, however, and, if he were alive, neither would my father, though I’d never tell him what I’ve just done. I can’t imagine what he’d say even now, fourteen years after my crime.
“You did what? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know that private property and commercial enterprise are the backbone of our economy, our country?”
That last part might have been a bit more academic than he’d ever be, but the urge toward capitalism would have certainly bent his mind had he known that on that morning of my crime I was caught not paying for a tuna and swiss cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and hot peppers on a wheat hoagie roll at my neighborhood Publix Market.
At 9:30 that same morning I locked my office because I wanted to avoid a former student paying a campus visit, catching up with all her beloved teachers. I don’t know why I wanted to avoid her; she was bright, beautiful, and newly married. I left without a note pinned to my office door. No explanation, no forwarding number. Neither can I explain now why, on my 45-minute drive home, I became ravenous. Stopping at Publix, in that day’s plan anyway, offered the opportunity for a meal. An unwise, unplanned, and definitely irregular meal.
So I’m standing at the deli counter watching the food preparer finish making my sandwich. She asks if I want to pay now or at the register with the rest of my groceries.
“I’ll pay at the end,” I say, fully meaning it, at least for the next minute. The sandwich cost exactly $3.59. I open it immediately and begin eating as if I haven’t eaten since the modified Shiva four weeks earlier.
I remember thinking as I ate, “Hhhhm. I could finish this sandwich long before I ever get to the register. I could wad the wrapping paper up, stick it on an inconspicuous shelf, and no one will ever know.”
Obviously, $3.59 is within my ability and income level. But shoplifting isn’t always about need, about what is affordable or not. I don’t know the statistics about who steals for what reasons. Kicks; some form of “high;” kleptomania. Or not having the money to pay for a loaf of bread, a can of Viennas, an apple. I think of Chaplin’s Modern Times when the “Gamin” cuts loose bunches of bananas from the docks to feed her starving sisters and father. I love that scene; I’ve watched it at least fifty times, and each time the Gamin relishes seeing her family eat what she’s stolen, I feel nourished.
None of this explains my behavior, though. My mother would call my actions just plain old “stupid,” and maybe she’d be right. For what else should I call it?
I stole my very first item from Bruno’s grocery store on a Friday in Bessemer when I was four; when Bruno’s used to be on 19th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenue. I had wanted an M&M double wafer bar for weeks, seeing it advertised every Saturday morning on Bugs Bunny cartoons. That Friday, my mother once again refused to buy it for me. She bought me many treats on these shopping Fridays, so I could never understand why she balked at this one candy bar. I can still hear her voice descending to my ears:
“No, I said, and I mean it.”
So when her back was turned, I reached up to the candy display at the checkout and pocketed my M&M wafer bar. When I got home, I ate it, too, in the privacy of my bedroom. An hour later, my mother found me:
“I paid for that candy bar that you put into your pocket. Mr. Phillips at the manager’s stand saw you take it. I am so ashamed of you.”
Being ashamed of a four-year-old borders on bathos. Being ashamed of a 44-year-old penetrates all borders.
I think now that my mother could have saved us a lot of misery had she just bought me the candy bar in the first place, but then I wouldn’t have “learned my lesson.”
That valuable lesson about property and crime and shame.
* * *
Our city is nestled in greater Jones Valley, just southwest of Birmingham. Unlike Birmingham, however, Bessemer has little neon to announce itself. Its downtown was thriving, nevertheless, through the mid-1960s. Through the years of racial unrest: downtown picketing and boycotts and the fear of race riots. To combat this fear, Bessemer did something that no other city I know of even contemplated: it drained its most beloved and central lake and created a shopping mall.
West Lake Mall.
By itself, the mall did little to cool racial tensions. But it did host a Musicland in those days of $4.99 premium vinyl albums. I’d save up my lawn-mowing funds to buy the latest Neil Young or Santana record and then treat my latest treasure like the golden offering plates held by fathers in white coats at my mother’s church every Sunday. But not everyone was patient or thrifty enough to recognize and appreciate such treasure.
For instance, my friend Corky Harris. He would regale me with tails of shoplifting vinyl, sometimes twelve or thirteen albums at a time.
“Just buy one record,” he’d say, “at some random store, and then go to Musicland. Watch the clerk, and when he’s busy slip a couple into your sack.”
Now that was a plan. Like most mall stores, Musicland had no doors, and in these days there were no electronic sensors to alert the workers that their merchandise was being compromised. I remember that the opening to the store spanned at least fifty feet, and if you could slip out along the outer edge you’d reach the safety of Sears with easy access to the parking lot. That’s the way I thought about trying it in those days of temptation and wax.
Still, I just couldn’t see taking that chance, but what I did see once was Corky defying his own careful scheme. I have no idea if he ever stole thirteen albums or even three at one time. But I know he snagged one, “Hendrix in the West.” We had been in Musicland arguing over the relative merits of The James Gang and Deep Purple. Corky got fed up with me because I didn’t worship “Smoke on the Water,” preferring instead “Walk Away.”
“Whatever man,” he said. “Now go on, I have something to do.”
So I left the store and walked over to Freddy and Ray-Ray. As we stood near Super X Drugs considering our teenage destinies, we saw Corky approaching us. He had his arms crisscrossed over his barrel-chest, and nestled in that loving embrace was the Hendrix record. You could see Jimi’s guitar through the gap in Corky’s wrists.
“Goddamn, Harris, what are you doing!” Freddy cried.
“Shut up and come on,” Corky snarled.
I know he had the five dollars in his pocket; he always had ready cash. But his act was that of the primal male, the alpha who urinates on sacred ground, who stands astride his conquered foe, who will mount any female in sight. Among other things, it was bold, audacious, and something that no one else I knew would try, much less succeed at.
At fifteen we admired Corky mainly because nothing scared him. Maybe sometimes we need a little Corky in us, or so I thought then. So could I do what he had done? Could I take just one record, somewhere?
At a different mall in another small city outside Bessemer where I would be a stranger to all?
* * *
I’m found myself standing in Woolworth’s in the middle of Midfield’s Western Hills Mall buying a copy of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. This mall was foreign enough, and from its outer heights, you could see Birmingham’s skyline, so wild and tempting to a teenage boy. I figured that a double LP would add the thickness my sack needs to camouflage what I’d take later. Layla cost $7.67. It’s funny what I remember from those days. Prices, the color of the blue Woolworth’s sack. How my heart beat in accelerated rhythm.
I chose JC Penney for my target. Is it possible that Penney’s once sold records? That a poor woman almost my grandmother’s age clerked that entire area? That they had rows behind rows of records, standing high enough so that a 16-year-old boy could grab a copy of The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, bend down behind a row, and slip it into his sack?
I’d barely finished standing upright again when I heard:
“Son, do you need some help?”
“Oh, no ma’am, just looking.”
I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to browse for a couple of more minutes. After staring at the back of Sgt. Pepper for precious seconds as if I need to read the liner notes to help me decide something, I began my walk toward either freedom or apprehended criminality. The only way out of Penney’s was the way I came: what felt like a mile’s walk back to the store’s inner mall entrance.
“Before you accuse, criticize, and abuse…”
I knew enough about my particular criminal act to understand that if I was caught, they’ll wait until I exit the store. I left-angled from the record department through Ladies’ Notions and Hats, and saw the border of my life looming. It feels like such a cliché to say, “My heart is pounding, my armpits sweating.” Yet they were, and I couldn’t turn back either:
“Excuse me, but somehow an unpurchased album found its way into my sack.”
I could’ve just dropped the sack and ran, or slipped the stolen disc out onto the table of gloves.
But I kept walking, channeling my inner Corky.
And he was there, with me, at least to the extent that I do it and don’t get caught. The store exit comes and goes. There were no arms to hold me.
I still have both LP’s in my dusty vinyl collection.
That night I told my friend Ray-Ray what I had done, and I don’t remember clearly, but I think he said, “Uh-huh. What? You?”
But never again.
Maybe it was the fear, the near heart attack, or maybe it was the fact that numerous record clubs offered introductory offers of 13 albums for a penny if you joined and agreed to buy four more in the coming two years. One club dispensed with the commitment altogether. It was like stealing at first to join, until I realized that standard prices for the records I would have to purchase were set at $7.98 plus tax, shipping, and handling, making an album I could purchase for just over five dollars cost nearly thirteen from the club.
Who’s zooming who?
None of this, of course, justified my larceny.
I vowed on that record day as I exited the mall proper to never steal again. I repeated my vow many times on the 25-minute drive home. For over a decade, I adhered to that promise, too.
My next theft redefined petty. My wife and I were in Walmart, and we needed a package of tiny colored lights, perhaps for some Christmas decoration. I know at least that it was wintertime, for I wore my heaviest coat. Knoxville, Tenn., can get bitter in December, and with the city snuggled in the Cumberland Valley, the cold north winds make you feel alive and sometimes even invulnerable.
I found the package of lights, so small that they fit unobtrusively into my coat pocket, which is where they remained as we continued our shopping. Believe it or not, I forgot about them as we paid, and only realized they were there when I removed my coat after we returned to our apartment on the west side of town, which looked out over the hillside, an occasional light reminding us that we weren’t alone.
“Look at that,” I showed my wife. “We forgot to pay!”
“Ohhh,” she said. “I’m glad you weren’t caught. That would have been bad.”
The lights cost $1.39. Cheap—and ineffective, because the next week, we needed more.
And so I got more. Intentionally, this time.
“Why are you taking this chance,” my wife asked. “Is it worth getting caught for this?”
Ah, the logic of the non-Corky mind.
* * *
If you add together the total of my evil gains, you’ll get $8.02. Trust me. I’m an English professor, but I’m good with numbers. I can’t add the $3.59 for the tuna sandwich, though, because it went like this:
At some point in my life of crime, someone thought it a grand idea to install hidden cameras in secluded grocery store departments. “What melons! What penumbras!” I’ve often said that acquiring a Ph.D. does not confer common sense, but before now, I wasn’t referring to myself.
I devour my sandwich before I reach the meat section, and I carry the wrapper with me into pharmaceuticals where, amidst the cold remedies and foot powder, I stash the sign of my ingested crime. As I push my buggy to the checkout area, I notice two store employees standing at the center aisle. Even then I think I am just a normal customer making his weekly purchase. My groceries ring up at $59.63, and I pay with American Express. Got to accumulate those Sky Miles.
Bagged and ready, I exit the store, bracing to face the blast of cold city air.
“Sir,” I hear behind me. “Did you pay for your sandwich?”
If I were in a confessional booth, I might tell the rest bit by excruciating bit. I follow him back into the store, leave my buggy at Customer Service, and lead the two men to the shelf where I left my fishy remains.
“Here it is,” I say, and they just stare at me. “I’ve been making really poor decisions lately,” but I don’t explain what these are. Nor, thankfully, do I use my father’s death as an excuse, at least not to them.
Is it grief that makes a man shoplift?
They bring me back to the checkout, watch me pay for my meal, then take my driver’s license, make a copy, and advise:
“Don’t ever shop with us again.”
After picking up my wind-blown cans of beans, I drive home, get in bed, with my loving cat Alice purring nearby, and sleep my way to remorse, no one, my wife, her mother who was visiting, my two daughters, or perhaps myself ever the wiser.
There. If I were a Christian, I might feel healed.
It’s funny, but when I go back to this scene, what I see most clearly is how I devoured that mayonnaised fish. And when I picture that moment, I remember another scene from my late adolescence: a hot summer noon in Birmingham; a street man engulfing a stromboli, bought for him at Pasquale’s by a loving, sympathetic—or guilty—middle-aged woman. With his first bite he tears off two-thirds of the stromboli. I remember him jigging to the counter with the money she gave him to buy it too. He had been refused a handout by the store manager just minutes before. While inhaling his food, however, in his hunger and euphoria he spilled his Coke all over the table. I think it sopped into his sandwich, but he kept eating. He tried to get the manager to refill his Coke, but nothing doing. The manager couldn’t afford another indulgence.
“City streets don’t have much pity,” sings Mr. Walsh. Luckily, I never had to find out what they bring, give, or withhold. As lower middle class as I was, as upper middle class as I am, I have always been a child, a man, in a privileged time.
* * *
As I contemplated writing about my crime, circumstances arose that led my wife and me near that Publix Market.
“We need a few things for supper,” she said, and so she turned into the parking lot.
What could I say: “We can’t go in because I’m banned for shoplifting a tuna sandwich?” It’s been fourteen years, and if I tell her, she might laugh. Or ask for this story.
I don’t give her the choice. I followed her in, knowing that the statute of store limitations had surely run out, the offended managers no doubt had been promoted or transferred elsewhere. We ordered deli turkey at that same counter. We bought a rotisserie chicken. We passed by the foot powder and Ibuprofen, items perfectly arrayed for our pleasure.
Our purchase totaled $120.54. We paid with American Express. We now have
enough miles for a trip to San Francisco, ‘The City,” as those in-the-know refer to it.
They say this is the “cost of membership.” That “membership has its
But there is also an annual price for admission, an occasional penance for our recent and past activities.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tom Hagerty