I was a fifth grader when my family was shopping at a discount grocery and I spied an island display loaded with bulk candy. There, before my very eyes, was the mother lode of Brach’s. Why, that mound was nearly as tall as me.
Pink jelly bean nougats were my absolute favorite — highly prized and much anticipated in either Easter baskets or Christmas stockings. White jelly bean nougats (pictured) were a close second. These delightful treats were several cuts above the penny candy we bought at the corner delicatessen with money from scavenged Coke bottle refunds. Man, I loved those little nougats.
In our family, special were reserved for special occasions (and in most of the families I knew, as well). Children weren’t indulged every time they turned around. I mean, my idea of a Happy Meal was simply one that did NOT include canned hominy or turnips! All of which made Mount Nougat the greatest temptation I’d ever encountered.
Wow. I can’t believe the amount of candy on that table. Nobody’d miss just a handful of them…
And so, succumbing to the overwhelming desire welling up within me, I plucked some forbidden fruit, stuffed the morsels into my little pink clutch purse, then attempted to exit the store nonchalantly. All seemed to go well enough, until we piled into the car. Before Dad turned the ignition, my mom popped a question.
“You wouldn’t have anything in your purse you want to tell me about, do you, Linda?”
What?!! She was nowhere around when I was snatching the goods. She couldn’t have seen me…
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth, nor could I issue a lie from the hot seat right there between my brothers. I looked at the lumpy, bulging little clutch purse in my lap. Being the ever vigilant guardian of her brood, she couldn’t have helped but notice the tiny clutch had gotten mysteriously pregnant at some point during our shopping foray. For a fleeting moment, though, I thought about jettisoning the candies onto the floor board, but concluded that plan would surely end worse than just fessing up.
I nodded my mea culpa.
“Come with me.”
As she and I made the long trek back to the scene of the crime, she explained that I would be returning each one of them to the display.
No! Oh, please, no! What if someone sees?!! Everyone will know I’m a crook. Or, God forbid, the manager will think we’re doing something fishy and come over…
Remember the scene from the movie “Up” when the dogs sentence Doug to wear the Cone of Shame? This was me, every painful step of the way back to Mount Nougat. When we finally arrived at the dreaded display, I unzipped the purse, slid the cellophane wrapped contraband back onto the table with a gazillion other little candies, and slinked back out to the parking lot.
I love my sibs for not uttering a word to me the entire way home. In fact, no one ever said another thing about the incident, for which I was very grateful. The whole ordeal had been one big, hot coal on my head. I wanted to permanently delete it from my memory.
Three years later, on the way home from school, I bopped into Woolworth’s dime store with a friend. She wanted to get a notebook. I looked at jewelry and hair accessories while she shopped for her item, then she came over and indicated she was ready to leave the store. Apparently, they didn’t have her item in stock.
As we exited onto the sidewalk and faced the intersection at Arsenal and Grand, I said something about it being too bad they were out of what she wanted. Then she raised the corner of the sweater covering the books in her arm, revealing the very notebook she’d gone in the store to get.
“But you forgot to pay for it!!” I blurted.
“Would you be quiet!” she hissed, grabbing my arm and hustling me to the crosswalk.
And there it was, as big as life. The powerful lesson my mom had impressed on my not-yet-hardened heart. In the moment, it was enabling me to be as sure as Mt. Rushmore that I wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. My face flushed as we hurried. Had anyone seen her theft and questioned us, I didn’t think I could bear the agony of such an interrogation — I knew our parents would surely be contacted. I briefly thought about going back into the store to tell someone, but I knew she’d run. By the time we had crossed the street and walked about half way down the block, I figured she hadn’t been spotted. Exhale.
Sometime between that first instance of shop lifting, when my mom helped me realize the impact of my action: that despite the dizzying height of those candy peaks, mine wasn’t a victimless crime — there were real people connected to the purchase and display of the Brach’s candy from whom I would be stealing… and this next instance of shop lifting, when my friend filched a notebook, I realized I wanted to be trusted more than I wanted illicit things. (The lesson associated with the kitchen radio fiasco probably helped crystallize this notion for me.)
I wish I could say that I adhered to the Trustworthy Code of Conduct to which I aspired for the remainder of my adolescent years, but there would be other temptations on other days that proved more daunting than my fledgling resolve. But one thing I knew for sure: I was determined not to find myself in the company of someone who would steal ever again, if I could help it. The remainder of our walk home was pretty quiet; I think both she and I knew that exchange in front of Woolworth’s had ended our friendship.
And I was sad.
[Current estimates of Americans who shoplift are as high as 1 in 11. Shoplifting costs US retailers $15 billion a year. Retailers’ costs for prevention are also passed along to consumers: closed circuit TV’s, electronic article detection, metal detection, uniformed guards, locked merchandise, dummy cases, fitting room attendants, and test shoppers, whose purpose is to assess a store’s effectiveness in surveillance and detection. All of this takes an estimated $400 out of my pocket, your pocket each year.]