May 18, 2002

blue light special

You already know, and now you do if you didn’t, that I decided to leave the house today. To be by myself, by myself. Some romantic notion of watching people happen. Get a little sunshine. Clear my head, which is a storehouse for confusion just now.

The K-Mart near my house is getting ready to close. I’m no fan of K-Mart, wasn’t even when I worked there, back in Rochester, during summer breaks. But a sale is a sale. And 70 percent off is a *sale*.

K-Mart and I go way back. I started working there at 17, on the register, five days a week for minimum wage, a nickel over if you stuck with it a month.

I probably would have stayed on the register for four summers, earning money for school in a job that to me was beyond boring, except for management’s realization that I had an uncanny eye for shoplifters. Takes one to know one I guess. I mean, I don’t shoplift now, and I didn’t then. But I had in the past. And a lot.

I think I was about 12 when I went pro, which lasted a couple of years. Those were easier days, no scanners or detectors. You had two way mirrors, and you had store detectives. Neither a match for me. Innocent brown eyes and a too-sweet smile, I had the perfect cover. It was never very hard for me to slip one shirt under another in a fitting room, books down the back of my pants, candy up the sleeve, or makeup in zippered pockets. A mood ring here, a magazine there.

Shoplifting is the art of distraction. Left hand reaches for a bottle of shampoo, lean a little closer, read the label, right hand slips the eyeliner up the coat sleeve. (This was upstate New York. You always had a coat on.)

But don’t think badly of me. This was just a phase. You had phases too, right? Looking for attention was what I always heard from adults who talked about kids who shoplifted, often in front of me, while I blinked in dismay. I said, “Wow, kids do that?” but I thought, “I’m not looking for attention. I’m looking for a really cool shirt.”

My regular hoist was cigarettes. A pack a day for me and my friends in the summer time. We’d split them with our gang behind the school. I was always the go-getter. The one they trusted to get the job done. And I always did.

We used to call it “getting.” Did you “get” anything today? That was the code word, our clever little way of saying we didn’t buy it. We gonna go “get” some?

My favorite hoist was Betty Crocker frosting. Heather and I would hit Star Market mid afternoon, wind our way through the aisles to the boxed mixes and frostings, almost drooling. Vanilla was our favorite.

“Oh look, they have those aluminum foil baking pans my mom told us to get.” (Can up the sleeve. quick as lightning.)

“No, remember? She told us to get the other kind. I don’t see them here.”

Stay for a while. Not in any hurry. Not like we’re doing anything wrong here. Then we’d wander over across the parking lot, behind the big department store, slip out the goods, sit on the slab by the doors no one used, pop the top, and dig in, one finger full at a time.

The crux of the problem with pre-teen me and shoplifting was that I never got caught. Ever. Not by the stores. Not by my mother. I was very, very good at it. So good, that when I got my job at K-Mart years later, working summers, fully reformed by then, I could spot a thief a mile away.

Management discovered my particular talent during one of my first shifts as door greeter, a job I took seriously because it was so much better than working the register. On this particular day, early in my K-Mart career, I called a code 7 ½ three times. That’s the code for shoplifting. Calling a 7 ½ meant that an army of shoe clerks and auto shop goons would come running, chase down the poor son of a bitch who was just trying to hoist some extra batteries, well, in this case a TV, and wrestle him to the ground. Vigilante justice at it’s finest. Once they hauled the guy to his feet, they’d take the poor sap to the back room and badger him for a bit before calling the cops.

They didn't treat the old ladies that way, and yes, old ladies steal too. They'd just make them cry.

So this particular day--the day I was discovered--I caught three thieves and saved the store $320. A TV, an old lady with some sewing stuff, and a high school kid with a penchant for clothes. Witness, the birth of a K-Mart legend.

The job had its perks. Not only was I off the register, but I got passes for the snack bar whenever I caught someone—eat free on K-Mart for every shoplifter you stop. It was all the incentive I needed, given that I was broke.

With my initial success, the head of security asked me would I like to spend some more time as door greeter. I thought about it. It beat working the register. They stared at me, waiting for my answer. Probably wondered if I was psychic or something. What could I say? I spent 4 years on the job—I know what to look for?

So I said, sure.

By the end of two weeks I’d caught 8 shoplifters. The head of security took me aside.

“We usually don’t do this, but if you want to stay on the door instead of the register, you can. You got a knack for it.”

I think I can admit this. I was flattered.

I had my good days and my bad days. But most days I caught someone trying to take something they shouldn’t. The one I remember best was the guy who strolled toward the door with a bag in his hand—receipt visible—he’d obviously just bought some stuff. But there was something off about him. I did my usual scan. Something stuck. His motorcycle helmet in his hand, about three yards from the door, he looked over my way. He put the bag inside his helmet, and I knew.

He was 6 foot 3 at least, and about the toughest looking biker I had ever seen. But I had a job to do. This was K-Mart. I was on the door. Duty called.

I walked up to him and did my thing.

“Can I see inside your helmet, please?”

He smiled. Eye to eye, I knew I had him. He was the most gentle and polite thief I would ever catch in all my time on that job. He stepped aside with me. Lifted the bag. And there was the stash. A watch, a cassette, and something else I don’t remember. He stood so close to me we were almost touching as I called the 7 ½ to the front of the store. The guys came running, ready to rumble, K-mart vests flapping in the wind. Pulled up short. Stared at me and my new friend.

“He had this,” I showed them.

The head of security stared at him. Stared at me. Thinking to himself, how did she have the balls to walk up to this one?

“Okay, come with us,” he said. And the gentle thief did. No fuss, no muss.

He was the only guy I ever saw them let go without calling the cops. Turns out he’d gotten out of Attica two weeks prior. They decided to give him a break. If they had called on him, he would have been back in for some extra long time.

“Thanks," I said. "He was the nicest one I ever caught.”

By the end of my second summer there, they offered me a full-time job as door greeter, a position they were creating just for me.

“But I’m in college,” I said.

“Well, that’s something you need to think about. I’m just sayin, we never offered the job to anyone before. If you want it, it’s yours.”

I didn’t take it. I think you maybe guessed that by now. But I did have a stellar career there, maybe making up for all the shit I stole as a kid. We do our penance our own way. That job was mine. My own little way of giving back to the retail industry, so to speak.

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about my job at K-Mart; it was supposed to be about my trip to K-Mart today. And it seems about as good a time as any to stop this post and start a Part 2. Later. Once I do my motherly duties for the night.


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