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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Steal This Brie!

Holiday Greetings, Bacon Press Readers (Bill, Mark, Sam, Karen, Sean, Kelly, Molly and Dr. Biggles)!!!

It's Thanksgiving week, which means tons of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and candied yams on Thursday, followed by tons of cursing, road rage, and rabid shoppers stampeding the gates of big box super-stores at 6 AM the following Friday.

Ah, yes. Black Friday.

A fitting title, no? It actually refers to the profits (symbolized by black ink in symbolic accounting books) that retailers plan to make on the first day of the holiday season that, in part, celebrates a guy who gave up everything he owned, lived in poverty, and championed the rights of the poor, the abused, and the outcasts of society.

On this day of conspicuous consumption, one might be inclined to cynically ask, "What Would Jesus Buy?" However, a better question would be "What Would Jesus Gank?"

Although it violates one of the Big Ten – if put into this situation and finding himself at his local Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, or Whole Foods - would Jesus roll with the Five Finger Discount?

I don't know. I'm not a theologian, but there is sufficient evidence that shows Jesus was capable of anything, often to the shock and awe of the people hanging around him. Jesus was a loose cannon, for sure, and probably the craziest Jew in all of Galilee. Jesus might just go meshuganah on your ass, and you'd never see it coming.

Hidden securely underneath one of those long and flowing robes, the possibilities of local artisan wine, line-caught wild Alaskan Salmon, and organic unleavened gluten-free bread swiped from the local markets are endless.

I should know. I am a former shoplifter.

It started when I was a child, let loose in the toy aisle of Kmart, trying to steal bubblegum from one of those toy dispensers. During my early teenage years, my life of crime progressed to stealing condoms from convenience stores (what I needed them for I'll never know).

It didn't help that at around age 15 and 16 I hung out with a bunch of young hoodlums whom I'd sometimes accompany in their futile and bumbling attempts to rob Coke machines and newspaper racks in order to get up enough money for drugs and alcohol. Or that said hoodlums and I once walked into an Army Surplus store and back out brazenly wearing the bomber jackets we'd just stolen.

We were lucky that our stupid asses didn't get shot – especially in the redneck South where I grew up.

By the time I had moved down to Florida, I was living with runaways who would steal CDs from chain music stores and re-sell them at the independent shops. While I didn't think stealing piddly little CDs was worth the risk of getting busted, I did pull off the occasional Gas-N-Go. In fact, I'd forgotten that I use to do those until an old friend from Florida reminded me that I'd pulled one the first time we met. He thought it was "punk", and of course that's exactly what I went for in those days.

Eventually, I sold that gas-guzzler and rode a Greyhound bus across country to Oakland, California, where I discovered a new breed of petty criminal – the gourmet gankster. It bears acknowledging that the Bay Area's food obsession even extends to those so inclined to stuff imported cheese down their socks when no one's looking.

However, think I need to point out that the few, truly successful, gourmand ganksters I knew were white, from middle class families, and were either college-educated or attended UC Berkeley. It's a sad but true commentary on the state of our society that, even now, if your skin is dark or you're an "undesirable" white, you'll be followed and watched in any store, while the real culprits – you know who I'm talking about – literally walk out of the store with hundreds of dollars in merchandise.

Thirteen years ago I lived with a couple in Oakland – let's call them Brent and Leticia – who were like this.

But while Brent and Leticia looked like your average, clean-cut, attractive, white 20-somethings, they were hardly ordinary. They were adrenaline junkies to the extreme, always pushing their limits – as well as the limits of the people around them.

Leticia would often bring home hitchhikers (like the ex-Marine war criminal and his pregnant girlfriend) or people she met while driving long hours in her junker pick-up truck back and forth to Ukiah. Brent was usually attempting to kill himself while speeding recklessly through red lights on his motorcycle, falling off tall buildings, and fighting pitched street battles with police in violent European anarchist demonstrations.

Shoplifting food was perhaps the most conservative of their escapades. They had several routines to make off with the goods; all of them practiced and carried out with precision. Brent would sometimes walk with ease into a Cost Plus World Market and back out with several cases of alcohol.

One of Brent and Leticia's schemes was to walk into an upscale supermarket and get into a "fight". As Leticia began to weep and divulge uncomfortable (but completely made-up) details about their relationship, most shoppers and store employees would avoid them or look away out of embarrassment. At this point, they made off like bandits – well, not "like" – they just did.

One of the biggest hauls they liked to brag about was when they once walked out of Andronico's in the middle of the afternoon with 2 shopping carts loaded with food. That was the surprising part – that they could just fill up a shopping cart or two and walk out without anyone stopping them.

However, while the exploits of these two may fill you with either awe and/or revulsion, I would like to note that the bulk of theft at any business comes not from the clientel, but from the staff – with the guys at the top often stealing the most.

I'm not making an excuse for theft, but it should be considered when passing judgments about any small time petty criminal.

Anyway, besides Brent and Leticia, I knew other folks (mostly young punks) who stole food, sometimes through shoplifting but often by price switching. The price switching thing is fairly easy, and more than a little tempting, in places like Whole Foods where you're expected to label your bulk food items. In fact, this is how I got busted.

Not that I was really into shoplifting or stealing. For the most part, I didn't need to. Even when I was practically homeless, I could still subsist off of dumpster diving, table diving, food stamps, and free meals in People's Park. And while most of the people around me at the time had a political slant to justify their shoplifting ("it's ok to steal from corporations since they steal from us"), I was beginning to feel – for the first time – that the justification of theft (even if it was against corporations) would lead down a slippery moral slope to the eventual justification of any personal wrong, so long as it was done in the name of a "greater cause".

However, that was a lesson that would come later. In the meantime, I got busted at the Berkeley Whole Foods for switching prices on a bag of organic lentils. Total value of stolen merchandise (the difference between conventional and organic): $1.31.

Pathetic, isn't it?

For that horrendous crime I was handcuffed to a chair in the employee break room by the store's undercover* flatfoot (an off-duty Pleasanton police officer) who threatened me with a weekend in jail unless I signed an agreement not to enter the store again. They also took a Polaroid of me, which I wish I had now since I looked pretty good back then.

I can claim for certain that the only reason I was a "suspect" was because I had, at that time, a mohawk. Ironically, it was the only time in my life that I looked stereotypically "punk" – and my hawk wasn't even cool. It was like one of those bad Mr. T faux-hawks - I was not rocking the Wattie hawk.

How embarrassing.

In the end, petty price switching wasn't worth the risk of getting busted again, nor did I find it politically appealing. Stealing brie from the "rich" and giving it to the poor, while it sounds appealing, wasn't so glamorous when I, in fact, was "the poor" it was intended for. And, in fact, I became more politically active after I stopped stealing – likely since I could focus my energies on political change I could see, not just imagine. I know it sounds cliché, but maybe I also just grew out of the whole shoplifting thing. Eventually I stopped altogether.

But while I've been clean as a whistle ever since, I have to admit - there are times when browsing through my neighborhood Whole Foods that the occasional thought crosses my mind: "This cheese, this chocolate, and these almonds would all look so much better in my pocket".

How about you?**

Come on! Fess up!

(Happy Thanksgiving!)


*Ironically, I later worked in Berkeley - doing what else? – busting shoplifters (which I was very good at.) I quit that job because I grew sick of sending teenagers to jail.

**Feel free to comment anonymously with your stories or experiences.


Anonymous Sean said...

Oh, I've always been too much of a goodie two shoes to shoplift outright. However, petty theft from my place of business has always been fair game. Of course, it's been a number of years since I've done this, since I can now afford nicer things than my company can.

9:38 AM  
Blogger molly said...

Oh boy.

I got busted in 4th grade for stealing Cadbury Cream Eggs and makeup at Payless. On Easter. What Would Jesus Do? Well, apparently he wouldn't steal choclolate and Revlon eyeshadow.

Um and then last week I stole some hummus from Trader Joes. Total accident, I swear. It dropped out of the stroller in the parking lot and I thought "Oh hell no am I going back in there". I'll have to let them know next time I check out that I stole it, and hope they don't handcuff Ivy and me to anything.

11:33 AM  
Blogger molly said...

Oh and I "found" a hat on a bench in Boston and took it home. My husband refers to it as "The Pilfered Hat", but there is no way that is stealing, in my book.

And as a teenager my best friend and I stole pretty much anything that was outside and not tied down (actually we took tied down things too), signs, banners, street cones, you name it.

I should probably stop now.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Mary Ladd said...

When I was in cooking school, it was interesting to find out which instructor chefs had stolen what via the gossip/rumour mill. Mainly equipment for their home kitchens and/or catering businesses. Of course it can't be verified that these thefts took place but the info was still out there.

As for my own personal shoplifting, I stole an apple from my teacher in fifth grade because it looked good and I was hungry.

1:58 PM  

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