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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Shoplifting

by Tammy Dietz

We were poor. We were Mormon. My mother was clinically depressed, occasionally suicidal, and my father was a hoarder who only changed his clothes on Sundays and whose crackpot “engineering” projects lay in unfinished piles throughout our home like sacred cows. What else is there to say? Under such tyranny, who wouldn't become a shoplifter?
If you saw me now, you’d never guess I was once a criminal. A marginally frazzled mother of three, I work at one of the largest corporations on the planet. I also write and teach on the side. I’m hard-working, serious, and honest to a fault. Former shoplifter? I think not.
But if you saw me then, you’d never guess I was a criminal either. Little girly-girl, properly quiet in contrast with my mouthy brother, but secretly kick-the-dog mean to my even more quiet sister. I was both gifted and trained in the art of passive aggression, which lent magnificently to competency as a thief.
I was caught only twice—first when I was seven and again when I was twenty—but there were more shoplifting sprees in between than I could fit lipsticks into an oversized handbag. It didn’t start with lipstick, however. My criminal career started with something I didn’t even want. This story of life’s lessons through shoplifting began with a walnut, and the first thing I learned was this: sometimes curiosity makes the cat more curious.

Gemco Department Store
San Francisco Suburbs

Round, hard, smooth with subtle ridges and bumps. I rolled the nut around in my palm.
I had wandered to the bins of Brach’s candies and raw nuts by the pound, drawn especially to the walnuts. What was inside? My seven-year old brain fixated. Outer shell, something rattling around within. That the walnut was ugly served only to generate greater allure. I had to know. But how? The idea to steal it arrived swiftly and was followed just as quickly by an even more provocative thought. Could I really take something without paying for it?
I peeked around the bins and saw my mother reaching to tear a plastic bag from a roll hanging above trays of apples—red, pink, yellow and also green like my corduroy coat with its deep, square pockets. In went the walnut and my hand, and there they both stayed as I casually fell back in step with my mother.
I couldn’t believe it. I had something in my pocket and my mother hadn’t seen. No one had seen.
I stayed by the cart, obsessing with the walnut until it became slick with sweat. I could think of nothing but that walnut and the exit and—oh, I’d forgotten—the guard. A long, wide store aisle led from grocery directly to the exit where I saw the guard’s cap looming in the distance.
I squeezed the walnut as hard as I could and stared at the hat as though taking aim of a target. The shopping cart rattled. My 4-year old sister babbled, her chubby toddler legs dangling from the child’s seat. The walnut beat against my grip like a tiny little heart, brought to life by the prospect of adventure, of leaving its herd for a solitary journey to someplace unknown.
Everything slowed as we approached. Slower and slower until, as if under water, we lurched toward the doors. I scanned from the guard’s hat to his eyes. His mouth opened and stretched into a broad smile, his hand rose to the tip of his cap, and then he nodded like a mechanical mall Santa at Christmastime. His eyes met mine, and then ever so slowly one lid dropped into a lingering wink and before I knew it, the morning sun was shining on the top of my head. I was out and I still had the walnut.
All the way home in our rusted Valiant with its torn vinyl seats, I clutched that burning walnut. KFRC played through the speakers, tinny and flat. What do you get when you fall in love, it crackled. But novice that I was, I smirked all through the long drive home. I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t wipe that smile away even when Dad held my arm by the door, nor when he squatted to make eye contact. I grew serious only when our eyes met.
“What is your hand doing in your pocket, Tamara?”
Tamara. Uh oh.
“Show me what you have in your hand.”
My eyes burned as I peeled open damp fingers revealing the walnut.
Dad marched me back to the store to return my prize and apologize to the red-haired store manager, which was obviously not quite as painful to me as Dad hoped because on the second ride back home, I positively tingled with energy while replaying the events in my mind—the exhilaration of near success, the thrill of exposure, the possibility that I might have gotten away with it. And most exciting of all, what else could I attempt to steal?
Suddenly my small, quiet world (mother in her bedroom, father tinkering, radio playing church music and somber speeches by solemn-sounding old men) opened to the size and intrigue of an enormous department store.

In the years that followed, I perfected my game. I learned to look casual and innocent by keeping my hands where people could see them and by stealing things that were small and flat. At first, I stole candy and treats, snacks, too, for there wasn’t always enough to eat at home. I stole small toys and electronics, and finally cosmetics, shoes and clothes. I learned how to look indifferent by making small purchases with babysitting money, things that suggested urgency and discretion, like tampons, so that the cashier paid no mind to a bulging purse and pockets full of Maybelline eye shadow, Bonne Bell lip gloss, and Great Lash mascara. I’d wear an old pair of shoes in and a new pair out. I learned that many trips to different stores delivered the best plunder and wearing layers allowed for adding to the layers without much change in appearance. I learned how to steal many things and often. I learned how to take what I felt I deserved every bit as much as children whose parents had means to provide. Why did the stores have so much when I had so little? I saw the retail industry the same way I’d been taught to see nature: there for the taking by the brave.
But hold it a minute, so far I’ve been focused on curiosity leading to more curiosity. What of the lessons I learned by way of the result? There were many.
I learned that people really did value a girl who dressed and groomed well. Teachers paid more attention to me when I wore clean, new clothes. Popular kids invited me to join their groups. My brother and sister did not fit in as well; I could see it. They weren’t as popular because they had to wear floods with holes in the knees and faded jackets and unstylish shoes that wore out well before they were thrown out. Even church people complimented and praised my appearance. No one seemed concerned about how I managed to dress in stylish new clothes when the rest of my family did not. By looking pretty and respectable, I was doing my part representing my family and mainstream Mormonism favorably. No one even asked questions when I’d gained such skill and confidence shoplifting that I began to steal things to give to others. I was the best gift-giver in the family. I gave my brother a Walkman the year they were released and said I’d used babysitting and paper route money to pay for it.
It’s easy to see how my behavior might have been overlooked. Mom had long since taken to her room and our home was on a slow path toward burial by debris and junk. Dad’s electronics lay all about the house along with mountainous piles of papers and church books creeping up the walls like vines. But in my bedroom, gleaming stolen booty sparkled amidst the chaos like half-hidden gems in the walls of a dark cave. My parents had their hoard and buried deep within, I had mine.
Eventually, however, I learned another critical life lesson: that every dog has its day of reckoning.
I was twenty and living alone in a studio apartment downtown. I had a dreadful job as an office clerk for an accounting firm in Palo Alto where I spent my days 10-keying SKUs onto long strips of receipt tape for some purpose I could not imagine nor did I care to. I could barely afford rent and my cheap, twenty-year old VW Bug broke down constantly. But I still looked like a socialite because I’d discovered that Nordstrom was an excellent place to shoplift. Nordstrom had no security tags on their merchandise, the dressing rooms were dimly lit, and the trusting staff seemed to presume we shoppers were all as high-brow as we appeared. Never mind that I began to forget an earlier lesson: to visit different stores and take just a little from each.


A typical spree. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just business attire so that I’d look professional at my job while still making the rent.
I layered myself with items in the fitting room, not even bothering to remove the tags and stuff them into pockets of clothes I left lying on the floor, a technique I’d refined at Nordstrom. I had grown careless, especially there. A few things fit in my bag as well. I topped it all off with a black wool jacket, slimming and warm, a coat I would end up keeping for many years to come. I did remove its three-digit price tag and stuffed it into a pair of jeans that didn’t fit. I admired myself in the mirror. Very nice, I thought. I would return to my humble apartment with a thrilling bounty of attire. I fished car keys out of my purse and dropped them in the pocket of my new coat, took one more look around, unlatched the door and headed out.
As I left the changing rooms, I noticed a man with a shopping bag leaning against a post, arms folded. He winked at me and tipped the brow of his baseball cap as I passed. So familiar.
I fiddled with the keys as I rode the escalator down towards the exit, my car, and escape. Descending below the second floor, I saw the pianist—a gray-haired man in a tuxedo—playing an elaborate Liberace-style rendition of I’ll Never Fall in Love Again and I thought, what is familiar here? The keys in my pocket that I fondled neurotically, the man in the cap, the wink. Déjà vu? I remembered the face, the slow motion way we passed. I smiled and nodded. Yes. I had been here before. You can’t make this shit up, I thought recklessly and laughed out loud as the exit grew larger and closer. I started to sing along with the piano quietly while eyeing my little black car through the glass doors. Don’t…. tell me what it’s all about. Cuz I been there and I’m glad I’m out. Out of those chains, those chains that bind you. That is why… I’m here to remind you…
Just then, my elbows were clutched simultaneously and I was yanked to a stop. To my right, I saw a young brunette woman wearing dark glasses. I looked left and there he was, the man with the shopping bag and baseball cap. He removed my handbag from my shoulder and handed it to the young woman, then took both of my arms and twisted them behind my back in a secure grasp, human handcuffs. As he turned me around and steered me back through the store, he calmly advised that I would need to come with them to return the merchandise for which I did not pay and that I would be placed under arrest for shoplifting. He said he had the authority to read me my rights, which he would do discreetly once we were in a private place.
Nordstrom. You had to hand it to them. They even knew how to arrest people with class, though this is not what I thought at the time. At the time, I was stunned. It couldn’t be. I couldn’t be caught. I hadn’t been caught since I was seven years old. It just couldn’t be. We walked, the three of us, through the scarves and hats, the cosmetics, and finally the fine jewelry department until we reached a well-hidden door that required Mr. Baseball Cap to enter a security code on a panel.
This had to be correctable, I thought. Had to be.

“So, that’s eight hundred forty-three dollars and ninety-eight cents.”
In a tiny backroom, he tapped the end of his pencil against a metal desk.
“Another couple hundred bucks and it goes from misdemeanor to felony,” he said.
I tried to look calm and neutral.
“Where did you get your jacket?” he asked.
My jacket. Shit.
“I’ve had this for years. It belonged to my mother. God rest her soul,” I added, attempting unsuccessfully to produce a tear. I recalled the red-haired manager at Gemco, how he’d accepted my meek confession and looked at my father with approval.
Mr. Baseball Cap watched me while lifting the receiver of a black, rotary telephone. He dialed, cranking each number with a deliberate forefinger, then returned to pencil tapping. And watching.
“Yeah, Susan, get me Women’s Outerwear, will you?”
He grinned above the phone receiver, as cool and controlled as a butler, as though he were retrieving something for me, providing a high-end service. I assumed the air of a woman on the receiving end: expectant and gracious. He was doing his job, I was doing mine. He held the authority of a black telephone and I struggled to hold my head high.
Lucky me, they didn’t find the tags for that beautiful black coat and the total amounted to just shy of $1,000—a misdemeanor, but more meaningful to me at the time, no trip “downtown.” Mr. Baseball Cap had the authority to place me under arrest and release me on my own recognizance. I would be notified to appear in court by mail.
Brunette with Glasses sat in a side chair most of the time, silent. She was obviously the assistant thief-catcher, and once the crime was determined and she had witnessed me receiving my rights, he nodded to her and then the door. She left and he started tapping that damn pencil again.
“Who was the lingerie for?” he asked.
Convinced I might yet get myself out of this, I told him it wasn’t for anyone in particular, why did he want to know.
“It’s nice,” he said.
I shrugged and smiled at him. I don’t know what I was thinking would happen.
“You know,” he said, “you’re not a very good thief.”
I nodded, quietly running through the zillions of things I’d stolen over the years. In fact, I’d been a very good thief for a very long time. But recently I’d become cocky and foolish, lazy, really. My closet may have looked like it belonged to Ivanka Trump but I still had an uninspiring job and poor prospects for the future. Popularity had lost its import. The balloon of power I felt by stealing had sprung a leak.
“You probably shouldn’t try this again,” he said.
I shook my head that no, I would not try it again.
“But you are pretty,” he said. “That’s why you caught my notice to begin with. It wasn’t that you looked suspicious. It was those legs of yours.”
I crossed them, one over the other, playing with fire now and hoping for a spark that would free me from this trap.
A rap at the door straightened Mr. Baseball Cap up, and Brunette with Glasses returned to her place in the side chair, looking from him to me and then from me back to him.
“She’s ready to go,” he said.
“I’ll walk her out,” she said.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said, and our eyes locked. “She won’t be causing any trouble.”
“Have you advised her of the Nordstrom No-Return policy?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“You can never return to this or any Bay Area Nordstrom again,” she said. “Not to shoplift, not to shop, not to browse, not to pass through to get to your car. You are not welcome here. Understood?”
My cheeks flushed and I nodded.

Later that night, Mr. Baseball Cap called my apartment to see if I was “all right,” he said. And to ask me out.
“Look,” I said, leaning against the doorframe separating the kitchen from the closet in my tiny-ass apartment. “Thanks for your interest and everything, but…I only flirted with you because I thought you might let me off. You seem nice and all, but I already have a boyfriend. I just didn’t want to get arrested.”
He harrumphed.
“Well you’re better at flirting than you are at shoplifting, that’s for sure.”
“Good to know,” I said as I thumbed a few garments in my closet that overflowed with clothing and shoes I could not afford. “I never did have any brains.”
“Who needs brains when you look like you do?”
An insult masquerading as a compliment, and not something I hadn’t heard before. The truth is, his proposal and praise flattered me. Back then, I measured my worth by the amount of attention I received, particularly from men. My appearance helped me get away with things, win people over, look the part of the good Mormon girl. But my looks had not helped me escape arrest. And three weeks later, I would have to face a judge. Would he care how I appeared? Could I flirt with him and receive a lighter sentence? Would the judge even be a he?

San Mateo County Courthouse

 “Case number 290477, Tammy Mayson, please rise,” the bailiff called. I looked at the slip in my hand. That was me. Shoplifting, First Offense. Dressed in a business suit, I rose and squared myself, head high, arms at sides, slip of paper clutched tightly between forefinger and thumb.
A man who looked homeless lay on his back on the bench in front of me, eyes open, silver beard bristling around his mouth where he heaved great sour-smelling sighs. Two rows up, a thin woman with blonde hair loosely crimped in a purple claw clip sat next to a boy around ten years old. The boy leaned toward the woman; she leaned away. I wondered which one was required to be there and why. There were others in the courtroom as well. Dirty, tired, desperate people.
The judge scanned his documents running his forefinger across the data before raising his head to take me in.
“Shoplifting,” he looked to his papers again. “No prior record,” he said, and then peered over the top of his glasses, slowly raising his chin, sizing me up.
“Are you prepared for sentencing, Ms. Mayson?” he asked with a booming voice, looking down his nose beneath the rim of his glasses.
“Yes, your honor,” I said, too quick, too perfect, too planned. Your honor. What was I doing in this place?
“Why did you steal, Ms. Mayson?” he asked.
I shrugged and licked my lips, fiddled with the slip of paper.
“I, um, I don’t know, I just wanted to see what it was like I guess.” I half-smiled, raised my eyebrows as innocent-looking as I could muster and squeezed my shoulders as though a giant set of tweezers were holding me in place in the back of this courtroom.
The judge set his papers down and clasped his hands together.
“We both know this wasn’t your first time, Ms. Mayson. Or do we need to discuss this further?”
My shoulders slumped, the paper slipped to the ground, I dropped my hands and my face went flat.
“No. This wasn’t my first time.”
“Why, then, Ms. Mayson, would a nice young woman take things that don’t belong to her and make the rest of the community pay for her indulgences?”
I’d never thought of it that way before.
“I don’t—I mean—didn’t steal from people, Judge. I… I…well, I just took things from stores,” I said, feeling ridiculous as the words escaped my lips.
A few people turned to look at me. Faces withered, eyes bulging, mustaches and glasses and the little boy with his mother. The judge waited.
“I stole things because I felt that I deserved them. I don’t know why it should be fair that some people can have nice clothes and some people can’t. I stole things to make things fair.”
I swallowed a dry lump that had formed in my throat.
“For justice,” I said.
“And justice you shall receive, Ms. Mayson.”
I looked down and swallowed another larger lump. His papers rustled and he cleared his throat.
“Ms. Mayson, your sentence is going to be harsh. You can pay it in community service or fines, but I have determined that it will be the maximum. Which would you prefer?”
I wanted him to know about my used car that broke down and couldn’t get me to work. My crappy job. The church that had issued its judgment rejecting me for being a sexually active unmarried woman. My incompetent mother and overbearing father who only wanted to talk to me about going back to church to pray for forgiveness. But I knew, right then and there, that none of these things were excuses and that my days of shoplifting had ended. I was powerless again.
“What do you mean, which do I prefer? I’d prefer less harsh if that’s what you mean.”
“That is not what I mean. Fines or community service. Those are your choices. Harsh… has already been determined.”
We haggled back and forth for a few minutes more. Community service sounded humiliating, and a quick calculation of the rate per hour of service led to the conclusion it would be wiser to accept financial penalty.
 “Fines it is,” he banged his gavel. “Three-thousand, two-hundred fifty dollars. You can make payment arrangements at the clerk’s office down the hall.”
Three-thousand dollars was three times what I paid for my car, and I had borrowed that. More than three months of pay. Three-thousand dollars was money I didn’t have.
Before leaving the courtroom, the judge said one more thing to me.
“Ms. Mayson, go back to school.” His voice lingered on a high note with the word, school, and it rung in my ear all the way home.

A few weeks later, I drove to the local community college for a catalog and an application. I’d been such a terrible high school student, preferring all things social over anything intellectual, that I almost couldn’t believe I was there. Until then, I considered education more of a nuisance than an opportunity. But the jig was up for me. I was not a popular and wealthy teenager with money to burn on attire—never had been, and I was not a good little Mormon virgin either. The fake was over.
College wouldn’t be easy. I would have to attend night classes. I had no idea how I would manage the homework while also working full-time. All I knew how to do well was pretend. I half-expected I’d end up dropping out.
But I didn’t. I went to college and discovered I had a brain. And that is how everything I know I learned from shoplifting.

Tammy Dietz is a writer, instructor, instructional designer, and editor. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals including Bringing Light to Twilight, a critical examination of the Twilight book series, and The Legendary Online Journal. She is the nonfiction editor of Silk Road Literary Review and lives with her husband and children near Seattle.


  1. This is terrific.

  2. Thank you for telling your story! I really enjoyed it.

  3. Who is this woman. She is exactly like me. I would give anything to talk to her. Thank you for publishing this story.

    1. Hi. I'm her. You were a Mormon shoplifter turned adult intellectual feminist too?

  4. Grew up middle class in super rich Tiburon CA. At ten used to take my baby brother to the five and ten to take things to give to our parents so they would love us!! In school I would take clothes to fit in with the rich kids. Great story, I can relate, thanks Tammy.

  5. Grew up middle class in super rich Tiburon CA. At ten used to take my baby brother to the five and ten to take things to give to our parents so they would love us!! In school I would take clothes to fit in with the rich kids. Great story, I can relate, thanks Tammy.