Apr/May 2021  •   Nonfiction


by Ben Kaufman

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

We used to steal clothes every school day at lunch. It was routine. Our school sat in the heart of downtown, and its open-campus lunch policy was recess for high schoolers. Freshman year, I mooched off friends and ate mostly from the dollar menu at Taco Bell. Sophomore year, I packed lunch. By junior year, we'd figured out the best deals at local restaurants for each day of the week. Senior year, though, we didn't worry about where we'd eat. We went to the mall and stole clothing.

I was accustomed to getting in trouble. It felt necessary, like I had to act up in order to properly play my role. My grades were terrible. I stopped reading books entirely. Adults at dinner parties called me "precocious" less and less, I was noticing. And I seemed to be at the end of the very long, forgiving leash of potential.

If the grown-ups who believed in me ever gave up, I thought I might float away into space. I'd realize gravity had given up on me, too, and my parents and teachers would just watch me gain distance.

"I'm not sure he ever could read," my mom would say.

I felt torn between the world of my parents—who spoke about me with unbridled pride—and that of my friends—who constantly called me a pussy. I wanted my worlds to converge and reveal their contours fit together perfectly.

So I was delighted to discover a new vice when my brother took me to Walmart and demonstrated his careful, well-practiced technique of shoplifting. Illegal stuff. Brother-approved.

My intentions were immediately nefarious. Later that week, I took my friends on scouting trips. Ten of us scoured the infinite selection of several department stores. I suggested we hit Walmart first, since that was my training ground. Plus, my brother made shoplifting there seem morally righteous. He stole a pair of gloves like he was making a political statement: "Fuck Walmart."

The first time I shoplifted was also the first time I got caught. I walked through the security gate with a new t-shirt under my t-shirt and a DVD copy of the movie 300, which set off a piercing alarm.

My mind raced back to the moment I pulled tags off the shirt; I double-checked for a security tag. Nothing.

"The movie," I said out loud.

I spun around, walked briskly toward the oldest looking cashier, and slammed down the DVD. Her wrinkles deepened when she looked up at me. I worried I might knock her over with the force of my anxiety. I stuttered through a rambling whisper.

"I'm so sorry. I took this movie. It's all I took. Please don't do anything. I'm so sorry."

She didn't hesitate: "Run."

Flush with dopamine, I ran through the exit, past my friend's car, and through the Walmart parking lot. I was overflowing with the sheer euphoria of approaching the exit doors with stolen merchandise in tow. It was a new high, unlike any of the drugs I was trying and any of the sex I was imagining.

Stealing felt great. We decided to do it often. Our mission was established, and our membership rolls and rules were cemented:

Rule #1: Be cool. Look straight ahead. Rip the tag.
Rule #2: Take clothes. Don't take electronics.
Rule #3: Walk out like you have the receipt in your hand.
Rule #4: Keep track of how much it was worth. It's a competition.

We stole from the mall mostly. You could split up there and hit multiple stores in a single trip. Mall security made occasional appearances, but the store staff seemed to mostly rely on signs in the changing rooms that read: "Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." We were undeterred.

Just like the elderly cashier at Walmart, whose fragile complexion softened when I faced her with panic, the staff at department stores seemed nonthreatening to me. I was young, white, and felt sure I'd get away with it. The threat of legal punishment felt purely theoretical. Risk just built up the high as I walked toward the doors.

We didn't only steal clothes. We started keeping ratchets and wrenches on-hand in case we saw a street sign worth taking. Sign stealing was a nighttime activity. It required a lookout and a getaway driver (sometimes the same person), and most of our time was spent meandering through quiet side streets to scope out targets. Usually, we stuck to novel signs that would make unique contributions to our growing collections. But we did take the occasional 'STOP' sign, knowing it might cause an eventual car crash.

The second time I got caught, I was filmed. I had tossed a 'NO PARKING' sign into my friend's truck bed in the school parking lot in the middle of the day. It was my friend Rachel's truck. She didn't steal with us and asked me not to do it, but I shrugged her off with a casual sort of cruelty.

We would later learn that a local TV news station was in the midst of an investigative news story about crime in the high school parking lot. Neighbors on either side of the lot were secretly filming students and submitting the footage to the station. All of their spy footage aired in a montage of kids doing illicit things: smoking pot, loitering, littering, stealing signs.

I watched myself on Channel 11 picking up a red and white sign, then dropping it in the back of a truck. Even though our faces were both blurred out, Rachel was clearly dismayed in the footage. She was shown waving her hands and trying to stop me. It was the golden nugget—the money shot—the station had desperately sought in their investigation.

But secretly filming children turned out to not be okay. Airing the footage was even worse. The station had portrayed our high school as a crime-riddled environment for inner city thugs. No rules, baby. It opened up the station to parental wrath and lawsuits. Channel 11 would eventually take the story down from their website and apologize on-air.

That footage of me, though, in the same beanie I wore every day and the t-shirt I wore twice a week, was a dead giveaway.

Rachel's dad taught at our high school, and when he found out, we had to turn ourselves in. My mom agreed it would be the honorable thing to do. She had no idea about the extent of my crimes; two dozen signs were hidden under a tarp behind the garage.

Rachel had already reported herself by the time I strode into the principal's office with a combination of shame and pride. The school reported both of us to the police. I hired a lawyer and paid his exorbitant wage myself—my parent's very annoying idea.

My judge happened to be my friend's mom, who had just nominated me for the Mayor's Top 100 Teens of 2012. She placed me on a six-month probation and ordered me to do 90 hours of community service, pay $500, and complete a full-day petty theft class. I never heard back about the top 100 teens.

The fees and community service hit nearly as hard as the fact that I had gotten Rachel into trouble too, even though she tried to stop me.

The theft class, an eight-hour slog, was the opposite of shoplifting. It sucked. It was the first evidence I'd ever seen that proved stealing could be sad. We met in a windowless classroom two blocks from my high school on a Saturday morning and introduced ourselves:

Me, the privileged kleptomaniac.

Queen, who had gotten caught stuffing a sequined dress into her purse at the mall.

An elderly woman, who insisted she had forgotten to pay for a candy bar at the grocery store. She later changed her story to include a stack of magazines.

A much younger woman, who was serving time in prison after stealing her friend's cat and then setting fire to her friend's house.

The class instructor described herself as "recovering." She must've taken the job as a way to help others, but she seemed like the most tired person in the room. She slouched from her eyelids down to her knees. The course material did her no favors. After six hours of discussing our crimes in a large circle, she sighed and gave us a 15-minute lunch break, then rolled in a TV and played several episodes of Scared Straight.

Walking out of the building, I felt completely numb. I was surprised the sun was still shining, and I sat on the curb waiting for my mom to pick me up.

My parents were divorced and almost never spoke, but they were united in their disappointment and bewilderment. Their son had stolen something? Their son, who played piano and volunteered for the Obama campaign, had committed a crime? Together, they decided to ground me for the duration of my six-month probation.

I felt disappointed by them, too, by their naivete. I had barely done any homework for two years. But when they saw my failing grades, they'd say school wasn't challenging me enough and college would be different. My parents had become dogged in their denial that my potential was long gone. Whereas my brother's sins had seemed political, mine were simply motivated by boredom and indifference.

He said, "Fuck Walmart."

"No," I replied. "Fuck everything."

Grounded on the cusp of adulthood, I retreated into lonely adolescence. For five months, I rarely saw friends outside of class. I got high a lot less. My life was put on pause during my senior year, one I had expected to be pivotal. When my friends continued their shenanigans without me, I realized I wasn't integral to the shoplifting trend I began. I felt less fun and a lot less funny. Any social status I had built began to dissipate, and I didn't fill the time with more schoolwork.

I craved excitement and attention. I missed stealing.

My mom finally started to loosen restrictions just before my probation ended and let me leave the house to hang out with Sam, my best friend who lived down the street. Although I was decidedly less cool, Sam loved me as much as I loved him. We took care of each other and both had surprisingly silly giggles, considering we were high schoolers obsessed with social status.

It was the first time we'd hung out in months, and somehow we ended up at Kohl's. A chorus of angels hummed in my head as I walked through the front doors. I was back on the playground. But elation was quickly overtaken by nervousness. My body was jittering. As I tried to survey the room for cameras and security, I could feel my hands shaking in my pockets.

With just a few weeks left on probation, I would break all of the rules I had co-written and get us caught one last time.

Graphic t-shirt. $19.99. I took my time ripping the tag and looked back over my shoulder as I approached the changing room. I put the new shirt on under my jacket, zipped up, and walked out.

Tony Hawk baseball cap. Also $19.99. Since I was out of stealing shape and still on probation, I asked Sam to take it for me. He did.

As we walked toward the doors, I felt the same addictive adrenaline rush that had driven my habit. This time, though, something new happened. Just as we breached the threshold, three security guards encircled us. They reached for their holsters as they yelled at us to stop.

Do they have guns? I wondered. No, just tasers.

They escorted us past a row of cashiers and customers, down a hallway into the security room.

Everything moved into a haze. The judge's voice rang through my head: "If you get caught doing anything else during this time, anything at all, you could end up spending time in a juvenile detention center." She knew I had no real reference for the seriousness of probation.

Monitors lined one wall of the security room. Sam and I sat side-by-side in the middle two of four hard seats. One guard worked the monitors, switching between cameras that showed different angles of our theft. On repeat, I watched myself break the first rule of shoplifting: be cool.

First camera: I walk into the store.

Second camera: I look over my right shoulder, then my left. Rip the tag.

Third camera: I walk out of the changing room a bit thicker than I'd entered it.

Back to second camera: I look over my right shoulder, then my left. Rip the tag.

The head of security walked in and sat down in front of us. He had broad shoulders and a buzzed haircut. His t-shirt was tucked into his jeans.

"What did you guys take?"

"Two t-shirts and a hat."

"What else did you take?"


"I don't have to make you empty your pockets, do I?"

"No, that's all we took."

His posture loosened, and he leaned forward to explain our situation. He was direct. In return, he explained, we'd have to be straight with him.

"We have a policy here. If you steal less than $20 worth of merchandise, we can decide not to charge you. If you steal more than that, we have to charge you. It's not our store policy, it's nationwide for Kohl's."

I latched onto the first part and started to cry.

"Sir, I swear that all I stole is this shirt. It's the only clothing I've ever stolen before—"

"Really? You looked like you knew what you were doing."

He signaled the security footage. I looked over again, where the other guard let the second camera play a bit longer.

Second camera: I look over my right shoulder, then my left. Rip the tag. Place the tag into another shirt pocket.

Finally, a smooth move, I thought.

"Well, that's the thing, sir. It's the first time I've stolen clothing before, but I am currently on probation for stealing a sign. And I just can't go to Juvie, sir. It's just, I just can't go. I just—"

"It's true. He's a really good kid, he doesn't do things like this. There's no reason for him to get in trouble here," Sam said.

That's when it hit me. Sam had stolen more than $20 worth of merchandise because of the hat I asked him to take. I got us caught, but he might be the only one getting fucked. It was the deepest shame I had ever felt. I watched myself from outside of my body, crying and pleading for sympathy, as my friend solemnly accepted a fate I had forced upon him. Kohl's would file charges against Sam.

The guard took a deep breath. "We've already called the cops, and we can decide what to do when they get here. How old are you two?"


"You're gonna have to call your parents."

Sam called his dad. I called my brother and asked him not to tell my parents.

My dad showed up first. He walked directly up to the head of security.

"Is it true? Did he steal? Did he shoplift?"

"Yes, sir."

He turned to me. "Who are you?" His eyes widened.

I looked down at my shoes.

"Who are you? Who are you?" He raised an open hand and slapped me, surprising himself as much as everyone else in the room. The security team tensed up, and one guard asked him to step outside. I waited a few seconds in awkward silence, then felt the need to say he wouldn't hit me at home. One of the guards sighed a bit, and we all smiled as if we were on the same side.

Sam's dad came in next, much calmer. He sat next to Sam and asked what had happened. My mom ran in just before my brother. She looked unnerved. She kept asking if I was okay.

Shame, again. Even deeper.

I asked my mom and brother to leave the room, too. My brother hugged me and apologized softly for telling. As my family waited in the hallway, the guards spoke quietly among themselves. They were clearly overwhelmed by my family's chaotic energy. Imagine feeling that way all the time, I thought.

Twenty minutes later, the police officer arrived. His body was a globe, accentuated by the fact that he rested both thumbs inside of his belt buckle. He had a handlebar mustache and was already annoyed by the pending paperwork.

"Alright, son, I understand you've stolen one item. Is that correct?"

"Yes, sir. Just the shirt, sir."

"Do you have anything else on you? Anything in your pockets?"

"No, sir. I can show you, sir."

"No need. The store has decided not to press charges against you. You can go."

For a moment, there was no context. My parents weren't outside. I wasn't still on probation. Sam wasn't fucked. I was just free. Then I opened the door. My dad was leaning back against a wall, covering his face as he sobbed. I could see my mom's fist clenched against her waist and her teeth pressed down on her bottom lip, and I wondered whether her hand or her mouth would burst first from the pressure. Behind me, the police officer started to speak again.

"Unfortunately, the store will be pressing charges against you, son."

I looked back as the door was swinging closed and made eye contact with Sam. He turned back to the officer.

"Yeah, I—"

The door shut.