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Shoplifting with a kid

photo credit: Jessica Ashley

I have a beautiful Coach bag my mother bought me for Christmas. The robin’s egg-blue patent leather is crisp and shiny. The logo is small and the bag is not showy, but it’s nice. Admittedly, we picked it out at the Coach outlet, sharply discounted and then marked off even more with a coupon. I’ve always wanted a Coach bag, and so it’s as pragmatic as the luxury of having one will get for me.

I’ve carried it almost everywhere I’ve gone since the snow finally melted and springtime pastels became acceptable again. As lovely as it looks with my nautical stripes and maxi dresses, there’s something wrong.

My Coach bag has a big problem. There’s something embedded in the bag that causes security alarms to ring without fail. I had the same problem with a Coach wallet (also from that outlet, this time on clearance) that often caused a ruckus when I entered and left a store. When the baby blue bag started squawking, I wasn’t surprised.

What did alarm me was the reaction of store clerks when I set off the bells and whistles.

While my wallet could be buried deep into a big bag to avoid set off sensors, or tucked into a pocket of my purse and maybe get by, the blue bag makes itself known every single time. In and out, through big gates and hidden pockets, no matter what the system, this purse will trip it.

As I walk into stores — TJ Maxx to Macy’s, grocery stores to high-end boutiques — I often put my hands up in surrender, face the customer service desk or sales clerks to show something on me, not me, is not behaving. Most often, they nod or wave me on. This, I get. I imagine many people set off alarms going in, or that they can be sensitive or wonky or have a thing for certain brands of bags.

It’s the exit that makes me most concerned.

After setting off a few security dings, I started pre-empting the alarm by telling the clerk nearest the door that my purse often sets it off.

Here’s how every single sales clerk has responded every single time, “Oh, OK.” And then they return to Gap-folding t-shirts or stocking shelves or eyeing other suspicious shoppers.

I set off the alarm, walk casually through the doors, and go on about my life.

Except for one thing: many times, I have a kid with me.

This kid is listening, watching, taking mental notes I am quite sure will resurface when he is thirteen or with someone who says, “Hey, what if we…”

I worry that he will remember how many times we set off security and left unquestioned, unscathed, disregarded.

I’ve spoken to him about this many times, beginning with questions, “Why do you think it is that they let me walk through and never question me? Why do you think they don’t wonder if I have really stolen something?”

We talk it out and he’s good at cracking the code of these concerning alerts. I know I am particularly disconcerted because I knew lots of shoplifting kids in high school, had access to tips for stealing should I want them from every store I visited. I opted out because I was, to be frank, a good kid who was terrified of a lot and was hammered with messages about being honest, and also because of one defining moment in an Express with my mother.

I was in 8th grade and we were buying jewelry for my graduation. We went through necklaces and accessories, and all the while, a sales clerk followed me, peeked over my shoulder, got too far inside my personal space. It irritated my mother but she whispered to me, “You’re a teenager and they are worried you will steal. Proving them wrong is good.”

Moments later, a middle-aged lady with a fancy scarf and tailored trench coat and expensive shoes, piled products from the shelves into her pockets and quickly exited the store.

My mother and I saw it all and watched with mouths agape. Just before the alarm sounded, my mother ran up to the clerk who’d been spying on me.

“That woman is stealing! We saw her!” she exclaimed.

The clerk barely looked up.

“Oh well,” she said, or something just as dismissive. The siren went off. My mother turned red.

“You’ve been following my daughter around like she is already guilty, but you’re ignoring the woman who is actually stealing stuff,” she raged. “WHAT KIND OF LESSON IS THAT FOR A TEENAGED GIRL?”

She was right. We couldn’t give them our business, obviously, and so we left. It’s stayed with me, even as I’ve heard salespeople explain the legalities of stopping shoplifters and the overwrought process of calling police and letting people get away with stolen merchandise.

I told my son about this time in my life to help explain what’s happening when salespeople today treat me with the same nonchalance, even if I am not guilty at all.

I lay it out there, because being honest is what this exercise is all about: I’m a white woman who is dressed nicely and blaming it all on a $400 bag. Change any of these circumstances and I might be held by a security guard or at least have my bags rifled through just to be sure I wasn’t unrighteous after all.

He is a white kid who travels in privileged neighborhoods (metaphorically and otherwise). He needs to hear why this calls on him to be even more aware and accountable.

We’d had this discussion a dozen times or more when I was cleaning out my purse, hunting for change for a parking meter, and a tiny rectangular theft-prevention chip fell out. It must have been wedged into the depths of an inner pocket. I held it in my hand. All of that over this little thing, that’s what I thought as I palmed it.

I couldn’t bring myself to toss it. I placed it in the cup-holder of my car instead. It served as some kind of reminder of lessons we all learn over and over again. But I did feel relief to not set off alarms anymore, to not have to explain I was clean as I left a place of business.

I’d like to say that was the end, that my son had enough shoplifting revelations to last him a lifetime (or at least through the teen years and well into his first Politics of Race, Class and Gender seminar in college), that I could be done with my Coach concerns.

But it wasn’t over at all — the next day and day after that and several times since, I’ve set off alarms all over this city and while we’ve traveled in other towns. The script is the same, the reactions still predictable, and the conversation with my boy go on. We talk as we walk away from the pseudo-shoplifted stores, my culprit purse hanging between he and I as we go about our own business.

 

Have you ever had a shoplifting experience with a child? How did you handle it?

 

 

Read more of Jessica’s adventures as a single mom in the city at Sassafrass.

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Ogle shoes together on Pinterest.

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