In 2009, a 25-liter tank of bull semen, embryos, and liquid nitrogen went missing from a farm in Canada. In 2011, another tank of bull semen (worth $110,000!) was stolen, this time from an Ohio outfit called Genetic Connections. In 2013, 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle were stolen from their distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Earlier that year, my favorite notorious silver thief Blane Nordahl was captured once again by his long-time nemesis, retired detective Lonnie Mason. For several years, I was obsessed with these stories, with thieves. I found myself romanticizing thieves the way I romanticize anyone with strange solutions to their problems.
I began to write a novel about a thief. There was just one hiccup: I knew what it felt like to be stolen from but not what it felt like to steal. I'd been one of those kids D.A.R.E. really worked on, believing that any day, middle school kids would wrestle me to the ground and stuff cocaine up my nose. I never had a "klepto phase," as one friend put it, or even shoplifted a lip gloss.
About 25% of shoplifters are kids, and 89% of kids know other kids who shoplift. Did I know shoplifters? I started asking around. It turns out that so many of my friends engaged in wild teenage thievery. Here are their stories.
When: high school
Where: boutique ski shops in the ski resort town where he grew up
What: hats and gloves at first; jeans, vests, and jackets later on
Why: the rich kids all wore Patagonia but didn't even have jobs; also for excitement
"The trouble was how to explain the stuff to your parents. The last time, I was waiting in the car for a friend who was still inside, and he walked out with a pair of skis. He slid the skis in the back of the car, laughing hysterically. We couldn't believe that he had just walked out with these skis, no problem. But how was he going to explain a new pair of skis? He took the skis back into the store, returned them to the display, and walked back out again. That was the last time. Once we knew we could walk out with skis, the thrill was really gone."
When: Around 15
What: Makeup. Just makeup.
Allison shoplifted alone, and only drugstore makeup. She would slip an eyeliner or lip gloss up the sleeve the flannel shirts she borrowed from her dad. She wanted makeup because she believed, at that age, that somewhere there was a magic thing with transformative power to "fix" her and make her beautiful. I asked if stealing was part of that—she needed to do something not-allowed for any kind of magic to take place. She said yes, that was part of the spell.
When: until I was 21
Where: lots of places
What: 1. A caramel from Key Food Supermarket (1989?)
2. Ernie Dorf's Marvel Cards (1992)
3. A green-haired troll belonging to Angelina Fink (1992)
4. My father's cigarettes (1998)
5. Lip gloss from Rite-Aid (1998-2002)
6. Brownies from Lassen & Hennings (1998-2002)
7. Some bottles of alcohol from an unattended bar in Soho (2001, with Jessica)
8. Clothing a few times from the big H&M on Broadway, and some boutique in Cobble Hill (2002? Alone)
9. A 50lb dumbbell from a frat party (2003, with Alanna)
10. An inflatable chair from a house party (2003)
11. The candy machine from NYPD (the pizzeria on E. Williams) (2006, with Molly & Frank)
"Lassen & Hennings is an upscale deli on Montague Street. A lot of my classmates lived in Brooklyn Heights and regularly bought lunch at L&H. They could order whatever expensive, divine sandwiches they wanted, and put it on their parents' tab. I was probably jealous."
Wait, a candy machine? From an open pizza place?
"We tried to open it for either the money or the candy, but we couldn't. We gave up and took it back."
When: late undergrad, 21 and 22
Where: big box craft stores
What: art supplies
"I felt justified in doing it because I thought everyone should have the ability to create art. I think that's a little silly now, but it is characteristic of my political ideology in my early 20s… It was partly a social activity. My friend shoplifted a lot and I felt closer to him after we shoplifted together. It was a secret that we shared."
When: pretty aggressively when I was 12 to 14
Where: Everywhere. I mean, it's easier to say places we didn't steal from.
What: candy, gum, erasers, just generally things that disappear easily into your fist
Have you ever been caught?
"I was living in Palestine at the time. My best friend and I went to this jewelry store, supposedly to look for a gift for her boyfriend (we were, indeed, too young for both boyfriends and jewelry gifts). She had already scoped out a gold cross and needed me to cover. When we left and were far enough away, she showed me what she took. I felt immediately anxious. She had stolen a VERY distinctive piece of jewelry, something people would recognize and easily notice missing. It was shaped like a Y, probably 2 inches long. I was furious with her.
"The next day, she called me in a panic. The store owner had spoken to her mother and told her he suspected she had taken something. She denied it, and I wonder only now if she threw me under the bus. It never would have occurred to me then. I told her we'd return it, but neither of us could do it because her mother would find out, so we settled on my cousin. He, like all young men in our age group, had a crush on my friend. He returned it to store owner, saying that a friend had accidentally (as if) taken it, and was too embarrassed to give it back."
When: high school
Where: this one used bookstore
What: porn mags, mostly
"I would grab a handful of magazines and beeline to the basement, where I would review my haul and decide which I wanted. I'd stuff those down the front of my pants, head back upstairs, and wait for the clerk to be helping a customer. They didn't put the RFID tags in the magazines. They saved those tags for the Bukowski and Burroughs books. I did this for about a year without getting caught.
"One day I was heading to a job interview at a movie theater. I was early, so I stopped off at a video rental store to browse. I pushed past the dirty-movie curtain and decided I'd steal one. I noticed a security strip on the outside of the cassette and ripped it off. I found another strip, which I also removed. Feeling very clever, I shoved the movie down my pants and walked out through the security gate. The alarm immediately sounded. The clerk asked me to come back through. The alarm sounded again, but I just made a dumb face like I had no idea. The clerk obviously didn't want to search me, so after asking whether I had a video she said I could leave. The alarm went off again. I got to my car, pulled the tape out and was looking it over to see where the security strip was when there was a loud bang on my windshield and a man yelling at me to get out of the car. He was an off duty security guard from the neighboring mall. He took my license and told me to go home and expect a call from the police. I went to my job interview, shaken, but still managed to get hired for the concessions position.
The police never called, so eventually my parents called them. A week later I was called in front of a peer review board at the local library to be assigned community service. When I applied for my current job a few years ago, they mentioned they were going to run a background check. I got nervous about my teenage arrest, so I went online and paid $10 for my criminal record from Washington State. It was clean.
When: I was ten
Where: a big discount drugstore that had a Coke machine out front where you could get soda for 25 cents
What: Non-Kosher candy
"The store was in a shopping center with the one kosher restaurant in town, so we'd usually drop by after getting dinner during the week. I was ten, so no money on me. I'd be pining for Skittles and Starburst, but there was no chance in hell I could be caught LOOKING at those candies. By the time we approached the register, the pitch in my sugar obsessed heart-brain was high. I'd just slip the bag of skittles into my little bootcut jeans pocket, or, even better, my Orthodox day school uniform pocket. I was more scared of the possibility of being seen with the candy than the moral implications of stealing AND eating horse-hoof gelatin. The complications didn't end there, of course. I had to make sure to eat the contraband candy in private AND dispose of the remains in a careful way."
When: 6th and 7th grade
Where: my friends and I would "go shoplifting" after school a few times a week. We'd wander up and down Broadway, from 72th-96th street; occasionally we'd cross town to the Upper East instead.
What: cosmetics (so much lip gloss), CDs, clothes
"You had to carry a razor to cut the sensor off the plastic packaging, then stuff the CD up between your backpack and your back and walk out with your thumbs hooked into the backpack straps, so the CD was held against your back. It was, at the time, a technical innovation. But we were confused about the sensors—we sliced the barcodes out of paperback books. I always feel funny-nostalgic when I find a barcode-less book on my shelf. I think the books I stole were books I deemed 'not real'—i.e., not highbrow/smart enough. I stole books on Wicca and how to roll joints, but bought War and Peace.
"But I was not Jenny Vaughan. Jenny Vaughan stole a pair of $300 pants, and her older sister was famous for stealing a guinea pig from Petland Discounts on 72nd and Broadway. There was a rumor that her boyfriend Noah stole a payphone—like, somehow uprooted it from the sidewalk.
"A bunch of white girls 'going shoplifting' on the Upper West Side takes some pretty intense privilege, and I don't think I knew that at the time. Just loitering around stores as much as we did would've aroused so much more suspicion if we were black. It had so little to do with money or stuff because we never really had to question money or stuff—it was just there, a given, to be played with. In a way it was all risk, no reward... but there also wasn't really much risk.
I loved hearing these stories, and yet, this was the gross truth that emerged: When I posted a call to friends for teenage stealing stories, most of the responses were from white people, and most of those were from white girls from affluent families. White girls telling each other about their gleeful teenage shoplifting has the metallic ring of laughing entitlement. I felt shitty, as though I had set a trap, when in truth I was delighting in every little coup.
Men and women shoplift equally, as do white, black, and Hispanic people, but we know it's black teenagers, not white ones, who are followed around stores for "shopping while black," which no doubt contributes to white teenagers' opportunities to stuff their pockets without any eyes on them. Mike Brown's cigarillos—"stolen," not "shoplifted"—become, somehow, a justification for his death, while teenage #crimingwhilewhite leads to a good story. I wondered if any of my black friends, having shoplifting stories of their own, saw my post and just thought, "Nope, no comment." Maybe my white friends shoplifted more, or maybe white kids can count on these stories being received a certain way—with laughter and OMG, a rite of passage like any other, a thrill to combat boredom or the teenage fear of a bland personality—and people of color cannot. Nope, no comment.
The out shoplifters I knew in high school were white, and they did it at work, openly, even flaunting their "five-finger discounts." I think the idea was that brazen stealing wasn't really stealing: if it were, you would get in trouble. There is a type of premeditated and methodical deceit committed mostly by white people who trust they are above suspicion. This is the type of deceit I was writing about. This is a very fancy way of seeing the world.
I kept writing and I knew I had to steal something. But if I tried to shoplift a lip gloss, I would faint, evidence clutched in my hand. Even if it went off okay, I'd worry about who'd be blamed. I wanted a victimless crime.
Then my pet rabbit chewed up the spine of a library book. The fine to replace it was the cost of the book plus $50. That was a week's groceries, and I was close to broke. I bought a used copy of the book, same edition, for six dollars. I cut out the original's endpapers, which had the library's stamps, with a tiny knife and glued them into the replacement book. I carefully removed the ancient sticker from the spine and glued that to the new one. I tweezed out the security strip lodged in the spine and slipped it in the new book. I spent hours on the project and renewed the book until all the glue had dried and the book was perfect. I returned it one Saturday evening, when there was a big pile of returns to process, and pedaled away madly on my bike. I kept expecting to get a call, but I didn't. As of yesterday, my library card's still good.
Rebecca Scherm's first novel, Unbecoming, comes out January 2015. She tweets from @chezscherm. Names in this piece have been changed.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.