When I was 20, I picked up a young hitchhiker. He was only a couple years older than me, a college drop out, and an anarchist. He told me that in 1999, he had only spent $99, and he was incredibly proud of that. He had been on the road for a couple years, "mostly partying," but occasionally stopping to do activist work. The majority of his meals were shoplifted from grocery stores.
"It's all about being confident, man," he told me, "If you just walk in there like you're not doing anything wrong, and stick something in your pocket, nobody will know. I've never been caught. I've been doing this for years."
"Maybe I should try that."
"Yeah," he said, "It's a great way to say 'fuck you' to the system."
Encouraged by his words, I decided to give it a shot. I went to a grocery store, selected two fine avocados, and walked through the aisles with them. It took me a few minutes to gain the courage to stuff them in my pockets, and when I did, I could practically hear my heart thumping in my chest.
Be cool, I thought, be confident. Remember what the dude said.
I started walking out of the store, ears ringing from the high volume of blood being pumped through my body. I was sure somebody was going to stop me.
Shoplifting turned out to be an incredible thrill. After getting away with stealing avocados, I found myself stealing from grocery stores regularly. My friends and I would go into a store, swipe snack size bags of chip, box drinks, and other convenient items, and go have a picnic. Shoplifted food, even when not very good, was excellent because it was free. Soon, we began stealing other things. We didn't steal anything big or valuable, only silly little knick knacks and novelties. I liked to steal paperback books. I think the most expensive and large item I stole was a giant fighting robot model kit. My friends were sure I was going to get caught when I walked out of the toystore with it under my sweatshirt. The adrenaline rush from that heist was incredible.
We never felt bad about it because of the anarchist's smug rationalization: stealing from big chain stores is OK, because they are The Man, and they are always stealing from you and oppressing the working man. Filled with righteous (if not overly idealistic) indignation, my friends and I continued to steal stuff unabated for about a month after I picked up the hitchhiker.
And then I got busted.
I was on my way to visit a girl who lived a couple hours away from me. I was hungry, and had money, but knew there was free food at any grocery store. I picked a superstore in a chain that I had had luck with before.
I should have known they would be watching me. I was out in the middle of nowhere, and stuck out like a sore thumb. It was like being in the twilight zone, and every single person was whiter than myself and a little bit deformed. The first people I saw when I walked in were a pair of what I assume were brothers, because they shared one key feature. One was an incredibly obese man, the other was abnormally short and stumpy. Both had the exact same face.
I walked the aisles and picked up a can of pre-cooked macaroni and cheese with a pop-top lid, a pack of juice boxes, and a box of plastic silverware. The aisles of food were crowded, so I started perusing their other items. As I walked, I ripped open the silverware box and took out a fork, leaving the rest of the box in a pile of toys. I kept walking and removed one of the juice boxes from the pack, dropping the rest on a shelf. Going back to the toy section, I briefly considered stealing a yo-yo before I decided I didn't have enough time to work the package open. I stuffed the macaroni, juice box, and fork in my pockets and began to walk out.
As I headed for the door, I heard a numerical code announced on the intercom.
Fuck, I thought, I wonder if that's for me. Do they know? Should I put this stuff back?
I shook off my fear. They never know, I thought.
Seconds after I walked out of the store, I heard somebody behind me.
"Excuse me, sir, we need to talk to you about some merchandise that wasn't paid for."
I turned around and was escorted back inside by three large guys. They were very calm, and seemed to be making an effort to keep what was happening from being known to other customers.
"There's a hallway on the right," one of them told me as he walked a few feet behind me, "Go into the first door."
They took me into the security office and asked if I had any needles or anything. I told them I didn't, and they frisked me down, finding the stolen goods. They asked me if I had done anything like this before, and I told them that I hadn't. I told them I was a college student (which was true) and that I had a little money (which was true), but not enough that I wanted to spend it on food (also true). They ran a quick background check and found that I didn't have any kind of record.
"It's store policy that shoplifters will be charged ten times the cost of the stolen merchandise, but no less than $50 and no more than $250. The total cost of your items was $2.32, so we have to charge you the minimum, which is $50."
The guy explaining the situation to me didn't seem angry, and actually seemed kind of sad to be busting me for it.
"It's our option to call the police or not," he told me, "but given the understandability of the situation, we're not going to call them. However, if you get caught stealing in any of our stores again, it is our policy that the police will be called."
He wrote a number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
"If you have any problems coming up with the $50, you can call this number and they can help you work out a payment plan."
They let me go, and I sent them a check about a week later. I never stole anything again.
Around the same time, one of my friends was caught stealing a toothbrush from Wal-Mart. They prosecuted her to the fullest extent of the law.