In high school, I started stealing lingerie—really fancy shit like thongs with French lace and sheer silk bras with satin straps. These usually didn’t have electronic tags that beeped when you walked out of the store, so I would go to a department store, grab a bunch, take them into the dressing room, choose two or three pairs, wear them over my regular underwear, and then cap off my spree by buying an inexpensive item, like a tin of mints or a tube of lipstick from the makeup counter, before strolling outta there, my padded ass wiggling like the smug motherfucker that I was.
At school, I was on the honors track and spent the weekday hours of 7:30 AM to 2:30 PM as a virtual mute, waiting to be released. I wanted a bad reputation, but I failed at failing. I was at the top my class, my teachers would write personal letters home to my parents, praising my performance, and the only time I was ever called into the principal’s office was to receive an award.
My shoplifting was my secret other life that no one knew about. When I was a junior, I started doing it every weekend. I wanted to tell someone that I was morally bankrupt, that the seed of corruption was in full bloom, that I was bad to the bone, that on the outside I may have seemed innocent, but beneath my good-girl façade was this criminal, a woman who took her chances and wasn’t afraid of the consequences.
During the spring of my senior year, a few weeks after I accepted my admission to Stanford University, I convinced Diana that she needed to steal underwear with me. “Help me celebrate,” I said. “I need sluttier underwear for college.”
That day I stole more than $400 worth of underwear and bras, and Diana stole about $500 worth. We were caught by these girls who went to the same high school as Diana and were now working for Bloomingdale’s. They followed us into the dressing room, pretending to be fellow shoppers, all the while tracking how many items we had brought in and how many we had taken out.
The second we stepped foot outside of the store, we were stopped by a security guard who told us that we had been caught stealing and that we would need to come with him. He escorted us to the other end of the mall and ushered us into a back room where the two girls who had followed us earlier were waiting.
I whispered to Diana that there was no way they would press charges: “How are they going to prove it? Are they going to make us strip in front of them? All we have to do is scream ‘sexual harassment’ and they’ll back off.”
We were asked to remove the stolen items in a dressing room. I tried to ask, “What stolen items?,” but they had heard it all before.
From there, we waited for the police to arrive and handcuff us and take us to the police station. In the back of the cop car, Diana and I sat in silence. Months earlier, Stanford had paid for my flight to California so that I could attend their “Admit Weekend,” where I and several hundred other prospective freshmen were told over and over that we were “special,” that we were “extraordinary,” that we were “future leaders.” On the way to the station, I realized that I might have to go to court, that I might have a permanent record, that I might have to check “yes” on the part of job applications that asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime, that there was a good chance my public life as a “good girl” was now over, and even if I didn’t care, there were enough people in the world—like someone on the admissions committee for a university, or someone who might one day be my future employer—who did care, and because of them, I would have little choice but to care as well.
Inside the police station, we were read our rights and fingerprinted. The two police officers rattled off a litany of threats: “Your future, as you know it, is OVER” and “How would you girls like to spend a night in jail?” and “I’m ashamed for your parents. How do you plan on explaining this to them?”
I knew they were trying to shame me. I knew I was supposed to feel genuine remorse, that this was their way of scaring me straight, but all I felt was a deep and pervasive numbness, followed immediately by indignation. What right did these police officers have to moralize? What right did they have to shame us? When my father had his social security number stolen and thousands of dollars in disputed charges to sort out, the police did virtually nothing.
“What is wrong with you?” my mother asked me when she came to pick me up. “Don’t you know if you put bad energy into the world, the world gives it right back? Oh god, what if Stanford revokes your admission? Why are you just sitting there, not saying anything? Don’t you care that you may have just ruined your future?”
I was sitting there, not saying anything, because my parents were taking turns shouting at me. I was sitting there, not saying anything, because the last time I told my parents what I cared about, they told me to stop caring about that. They told me to put an end to my fanciful delusions of becoming a writer and get serious about life.
At the seminar I had to attend as part of my sentence, I recall my instructor telling me that my biggest mistake was not in shoplifting, but in agreeing to go into a room with a strange man that I had never met before. My friend Diana had to attend a similar class, and she told me that everyone applauded when she revealed that she had stolen from Bloomingdale’s. Most of the people there had stolen petty cash from the register or small things, useful things, like a box of cereal. One woman stole packing tape because she was moving and said she couldn’t afford to tape up her boxes. A few of the people in my class cried when they explained why they had stolen. One woman praised God and publicly asked Him for forgiveness.
When it was all over, Stanford didn’t revoke my admission. The God I didn’t believe in didn’t come down to smite me. And the lesson I was supposed to have learned never materialized. I continued to shoplift. A couple years ago, I went for a mall haircut and came out with a mullet. I was so upset that I ran into the nearest department store, pulled a scarf from the accessories wall, ripped the tag off, tied it around my mullet, took a deep breath, and calmly walked out of the store. When I started my first full-time job as a union organizer in San Francisco and moved into my first adult apartment with my boyfriend, I would regularly go into our local Safeway, order a sandwich, yank the price off the wax paper, and toss it behind a box of Nilla wafers and walk out.
In recent years, I’ve been trying to accumulate less stuff in general, especially stuff made overseas by underpaid and overworked employees, and in the process of trying to reduce my consumer footprint, I’ve somehow, without even really noticing, stopped stealing shit. I’ve been trying to reconcile my desire to drape myself in beautiful things with the reality of what textile workers actually get paid for their labor.
At an Occupy Wall Street rally I attended last October, a woman stepped up to the mic and asked why we criminalize individuals who steal from corporations, but fail to punish corporations who steal from individuals? This is an interesting point. It’s not like I believe what I did was good for the world. I could look back on my stealing days and, in hindsight, find crude justifications for what I did. I could tell you, for example, that what I was really doing was looking for small ways to subvert a capitalistic economy that tells us that individuals are worth far less than stuff. Or I could tell you that back then, I wanted things to be free, and if they weren’t, I wanted to be free to take them. All I know is that in some ways, I still want that—I don’t want to work four to five part-time and freelance jobs so I can have the flexibility and time to be the writer I dreamed of becoming as a teenager and STILL not have affordable healthcare. I need to believe that as self-serving and bratty and inarticulate as it is to flip the world the middle finger, that it’s OK sometimes.
A few weeks ago, I gave a poetry reading for my friend Polly’s reading series in Brooklyn. I brought five books with me to sell. I left the books out on a table for anyone to look through and browse or buy. At the end of the night, I had sold three, but only had one left.
“I think someone took one of my books without paying,” I told my friend Polly. “But it’s OK. Maybe they wanted it and couldn’t afford it.”
“That’s still not right, though,” Polly said.
“It’s actually all right with me.”
“Are you sure?” Polly asked me.
I was sure. ♦