2001 Undergraduate Nonfiction Winner
"When you steal from me, you’re stealing twice."—Jack Benny
The following story is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
That’s not my line. Or rather, that phrase doesn’t belong to me.
Actually, it was radio shows of the 1930’s that first told true crime stories, all the while using pseudonyms in order to guarantee the safety of that ever-shrinking demographic known as “the innocent.” Producers of programs like “Dragnet” and “Gangbusters” knew that there was no better source for drama than front page headlines. However, once they were tweaked and filtered through a dramatic lens, these stories were no longer accurate enough to be news stories, but were not exaggerated enough to be fiction. They were only partial invention. Semi-fiction.
Audiences didn’t seem to mind, though. “Dragnet” became so popular that it was able to make the leap to a different medium, only to become immortalized on television by Jack Webb. The “Dragnet” theme is one of those handful of TV tunes that are familiar as Christmas carols, but are applicable all year round. And just as those few hard boiled chords have been programmed into the American psyche, so has the idea that the safest way to tell a story about a true crime is to change the names. After all, the innocent must be protected. Right?
It was my drag queen friend who first taught me how easy shoplifting is. I suppose I had always looked down my nose at it. Shoplifting is tacky, I thought. Shoplifting is what people get arrested for in high school. It’s how out-of-work movie stars make it back into the headlines. It’s not chic like a cocaine addiction, or mysterious like sexual misconduct, or dangerous like carrying a concealed weapon. Shoplifting is in poor taste. And boring. Like food stamps.
And it’s wrong. Right? Taking something that is not yours is wrong Coming in at number seven:... Thou shalt not steal. Do unto others, etcetera.
My drag queen friend will take anything in a mall that is not nailed down: CD’s, lipstick, little leopard-skin purses, candy bars. Confidence is the key. It may seem that a six-foot-four chain-smoking cross-dresser is just too conspicuous, somehow too ominous not to be noticed stuffing merchandise into his pants in Gadzooks. However, when this diva struts through the mall with all the attitude of a throbbing Gloria Gaynor song, people get out of the way. These are the same nerves of steel that help movie stars, politicians, and hard-working prostitutes stay above water. Just like every other cutthroat profession, shoplifting is all about appearances At all times, one must remain Cool
My personal history of theft prior to the gas station mess is as follows: the only thing I have ever stolen is other people’s stories I am a story thief. I listen carefully to the love and war stories of friends, coworkers, and strangers on airplanes, I file them away in my head, and when they have had enough time to incubate, I tweak the details (names, settings, etc.), crank them out on paper and label them “fiction.” It is a literary fencing operation in which I am the narrative pickpocket. I steal the joy and heartbreak from an unsuspecting you, file off their serial numbers, and sell them on the black market. But while I may have stolen some people’s most valuable possessions and sold them back at exorbitant prices, I have never, ever shoplifted. Famous last words? If so, they certainly weren’t mine. I probably stole them off somebody else.
My drug dealer friend works at a gas station. He works the second shift, as apparently drug dealers do not work in the morning. The gas station in question is labeled a “snack shop,” and while it does not sell beer, it is a small, well-stocked convenience store. It is owned by a local family that owns several such establishments. The store in question, however, has no security cameras and the managers keep a lousy inventory of its merchandise.
My drug dealer friend is generous in that grandiose, Cosa Nostra kind of way, and I am in the family. He fancies himself a postmodern, blue collar Robin Hood, stickin’ it to the man by liberating the Twinkies and Camel cigarettes of the aristocracy. I am still unclear as to how his ring of bandits got started, but by the time I became aware of it, it had blossomed into a full-fledged underground society. There are two distinct groups of patrons at this gas station; the people who have to pay for their Snapple and the people who do not. I am a member of the latter.
It started with a fountain Coke on a hot afternoon. He wouldn’t let me pay for it. That simple. I resisted the gesture at first, but he was full of “Oh Please,” and “Look Who You’re Talking To,” and “You’re In The Family It’s The Least I Can Do.” So I graciously thanked him, took my forty-four ounces (I’m an American; I demand excess gratification), and hit the road. That simple.
It then became a recurring game. We were role playing. He was the Mafia Don and I was his Prodigal Son, returning after straying from the fold, only to be greeted by a feast and the fatted calf. I would resist, he would insist, I would resist, he would insist, I would give in. The routine became our own “Who’s on First?” It was playful. And no one was getting hurt because the only thing that ever hung in the balance was snack food. It was root beer and potato chips. And an occasional newspaper. Surely no one would miss these things.
This lifestyle is all about rationale. More importantly, if you can rationalize this, then it has become a lifestyle. I found myself creating justification for accepting the generosity. My paradigms ranged from “Hey, I’m in college. These are the experiences that can only exist in college. I won’t be able to shoplift ten years from now This is my prime,” to “Hey, poor kids spend their whole lives stealing, and yet the country’s economy hasn’t collapsed since the late 1920’s. Something must be working.” I was becoming a real jackass.
Like everything else that is both illegal and fun, shoplifting is a slippery slope. Eventually I only feigned bashfulness when I took things, and our cute banter became perfunctory, and then just boring. Then we stopped going through the motions altogether. I would come into the store, nod to him, stuff some M&Ms into my pocket, and leave. I also upscaled to more expensive merchandise. Before taking a road trip I would stop in for free batteries. On my way to a party I would drop by for breath mints and condoms. Once I complimented my friend on his sunglasses and he insisted that I take a pair for myself.
And I was not alone. There were others. Many, many others. My drug dealer friend is enormously well-bred, smartly dressed, and belongs to a good Greek fraternity, so his social circle is immense. An entire community of cell phone-toting, fake-tanning, SUV-driving bar hoppers counts on him for free gasoline and cigarettes. This was never about stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This was college kids ransacking a local Mom and Pop store.
I was a culprit. At first it was cute. I came into this story with a clean record. I’m a straight arrow, a wallflower nerd who was corrupted by the bad seed kids. Which was novelty. Good fun. And then suddenly I’m in the same echelon as hardcore stoners who are jonesin’ for potato chips and stealing them to satisfy their munchies.
My artist friend constantly accuses me of lying He and his therapist are working on honesty, he tells me. He’s so much more fulfilled when he tells people what he really thinks of them, he assures me. He thinks I am too political, too sterile, and wouldn’t I be so much happier if I went though life like he does, which I assume means reaching self-actualization by taking ecstasy at major theme parks and talking loudly about my genitals in the mall food court. When am I going to strip away my layers, he wants to know. Will I ever shatter my routine?
I want to tell him to piss off. I’d like to say to him, You want honesty? Fine. Your therapist is a fucking con artist, and everyone knows it but you. I want to tell him, Your free association lifestyle is a total fraud, okay? I dream of screaming, Artist? You call yourself an artist? Directing an all-S&M production of Edward Albee’s The American Dream does not liberate the literature from the shackles of modern theatre. Nor does it reinvent the text. It’s a fiasco and an embarrassment for all involved, you nitwit. That’s honesty
However, I recognize this strategy to be a counterproductive one, so I keep my honesty to myself Instead I tell him, That’s great. Working on honesty. Yeah, my therapist and I are working on subtlety
It was my artist friend who suggested I do myself and my writing a favor by trying something new every day. He put down his chopsticks, looked me straight in the eye, and insisted, breaking free from your rut should become a discipline. “You need to break more rules,” he prodded. When I asked which rules he recommended, he inquired “Have you ever tried shoplifting?”
What? Of course not. No. Absolutely not. Jesus. Why would you even suggest that, I asked indignantly.
Not only was it a stupid thing to recommend, I told him, it was wrong. It was not like a suggestion to walk around a city block naked, or chain myself to a tree to prevent it from being cut down, both of which are illegal, but neither of which does anyone any harm. But shoplifting is stealing, I snapped at him. It’s not that I’m unwilling to try something new I explained to him (slowly and loudly, so he wouldn’t miss the point), it’s that I don’t take things that don’t belong to me, comprende? You think I should try anything once? Why don’t you try something new once? For once why don’t you keep your mouth shut so that some of the things that are meant to stay exclusively inside your head don’t tumble out for all the world to hear? That would be something new Shoplifting. Jesus.
My grandmother was notorious for taking things from restaurants. Usually small cream pitchers and ashtrays. It was adorable. She was old and it was adorable. She would slip them into her purse and giggle and insist that no one would miss them. When they cleaned out her house after she died, they found countless cream pitchers and ashtrays, like the jigsaw puzzles in Citizen Kane. Sitting in her basement stones were swapped about favorite And Remember The Time We Took Her Out For Her Birthday And She Stole The. . .experiences. At first the grandchildren fought for them, but the more they dug, the more they found. Eventually though, the volume became overwhelming, and the stories lost their novelty. Finally several of them were thrown away. I kept my personal favorite from my youth, an ashtray from Sardi’s she had stolen on a trip to New York. I slipped it into my personal box of the kitschy heirlooms that had been divided, but I did it when no one was looking so there would be no arguments over its custody. I really wanted that ashtray.
I would be lying if I did not admit that my artist friend’s shoplifting suggestion haunted me for days. It usually does not occur to me to break the law I drive the speed limit. I pay my taxes. I don’t even smoke pot. What’s more, I pride myself on being non judgmental. While I usually do not break the rules, I work valiantly to be impartial of my friends who do, pending nobody gets hurt. After all, I listen to National Public Radio. I go to the movies. I know there is enough evil in this world without my breaking the commandments or casting the first stone. While deviance intrigues me, I promised myself merely to observe it from the outside looking in.
So I considered going to the mall with my drag queen friend and watching him shoplift. Or maybe watching my drug dealer friend score a deal. These are people who know exactly what they’re doing and have a perfectly good rationale for it. They live in their own moral universes, and their personal codes of conduct allow them to go on. They can live with themselves.
Which is great for me, I suppose. After all, my artist friend and my drag queen friend and my drug dealer friend all make irrevocable, defining choices on a regular basis. They have constructed for themselves identities that are ideal for a quirk thief like myself. It’s easy to steal from characters with so much definition. I would like to pretend that I have withheld their names to protect their anonymity, but honestly I prefer using their titles instead. Names cannot be changed to protect the innocent when no one in the story is innocent to begin with. And thank goodness for that because by the time the final credits roll it has become apparent that innocence is excruciatingly dull.
What could be more appealing than a cross-dresser who shop-lifts? More delicious than an Abercrombie & Fitch narcotics dealer? The names have been changed, in fact, to protect the writer.
So by now you have figured out that I have been taking things that were not mine for a long time. I meant to tell you about the first time I shoplifted and the circumstances and characters surrounding the incident. However, given the accidental nature of my first foray into a life of crime, losing my shoplifting virginity seems strangely unimportant. I thought my artist friend’s suggestion was a joke. Only much later did I understand how unfunny it was. The soapbox tirade I unloaded on him was ridiculous. I cannot take the moral high ground until I resist my gas station buddy’s generosity. And I have still yet to resist.
Some college friends of mine have an annual theme party called “The White Trash Bash.” The name implies all. Partygoers dress up, or rather dress down, in heavy metal tee shirts, hunting gear, class rings, Wal-Mart smocks, crimped hair, and lots of blue eyeshadow. The house is decorated with Billy Ray Cyrus posters and clotheslines with dirty underwear (in front of which couples pose for pictures, a la prom photos). We drink canned American beer and trash can punch and listen to hard rock ballads from the eighties. The affair is, to an academic crowd, quite a grand parody
On the way to this year’s blue collar ball, I stopped at the grocery store around 10:00 p.m. for a two-liter of 7-UP. In front of me in the check-out line was a woman with her baby who was buying generic brands of all the basics: milk, cheese, hamburger, flour, bread. Staples. No frills, no sweets. The woman appeared to be exhausted, and was still in some sort of work uniform. When she took out her food stamps, she flinched. I looked away immediately
I only stopped at the grocery store because my drug dealer friend was not working that night, so I could not get the soda for free. I was doubly disgruntled. Not only did I have to pay for a two-liter out of my own pocket, I had to drive out of the way to get it. And now I was standing behind a woman who had a job but still needed food stamps and looked like she needed to see a doctor, and I was waiting to buy soda to take to a party that made fun of poor people.
A moment of clarity in a Food 4 Less on a Saturday night is as sobering as a cold shower, and I have not yet figured out how to turn it into an anecdote. It’s just a bitter pill. That simple. And embarrassing I’d rather admit to a nasty outbreak of herpes than a really thought-provoking case of White Man’s Burden.
At the party, several girls sported stuffed pillow-pregnant bellies. Elite academia at its finest. Illegitimate pregnancy among po’ folk is apparently some sort of laugh riot, and I seem to have missed the joke. Or, perhaps it wasn’t funny because I’d seen the punch line earlier in the evening. Nothing ruins a great party joke like some asshole who already knows the punch line.
Shoplifting is about fraternity guys making stupid dares with each other, or bored housewives entertaining themselves, or kleptomaniacs taking things out of compulsion or thrill. It is not about poor people sneaking food off the shelves because they have not eaten in days. That is stealing, taking out of necessity. That’s what people go to prison for in French novels, or worse, in real life. Those people are thieves. Shop-lifters are just passing the time. Frankly, I find the thieves to be a hell of a lot more noble.
This is not a confession of the ‘Hi-my-name’s-Christopher-and-I’m-a-shoplifter” variety. In revealing this secret I half-convince myself that I am absolved (in the Catholic sense), but in telling this story I steal the confidence and identities of my friends and reduce them to stock characters. These things I took I did not even need. Ultimately, there is no nobility in admitting to any of this.
So for the first time, I’m trying something new I’m admitting defeat. I have tried nothing new. I’ve used my grandmother as an anecdote. And I’ve relegated friends to a shadowy, semi-fictive place where no one has last names. So I probably belong in the nebulous, no-last-names place, too.
Hi. My name’s Christopher. And I’m a shoplifter.
Christopher Piatt is an undergraduate at Kansas State University majoring in theater. His essay, “No Last Names,” was selected as the winner of this year’s Touchstone undergraduate nonfiction contest.
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Last updated May 1, 2003