True (Embarrassing) Crime: The Rise and Fall of a 12 Year Old Thief

(or, How My Mom Had to Rescue Me When I Got Caught)

When I was about twelve years old I went through a short period where the concept of theft was a moral gray area. I was with a friend and watched her slip a bottle of nail polish into her purse, then calmly walk out of the store.

“It’s totally fine because no one will get in trouble and the company will just replace it.” She explained. This seemed like solid logic to me. A victimless crime. And I’d be a rebel, living on the edge of the law. A hero, really. Taking from the rich and greedy stores and giving to .. well, myself. But still.

Of course I never considered I could be caught, I only marveled at the ease in which items could be obtained. My partner in crime during these excursions was my dog, Sushi. He was terribly small, so usually I’d carry him in a purse and he’d peek out and watch what was happening. He was the lookout.

Being newly introduced to the world of crime I bragged about it at school, but, in keeping with the adolescent tradition of calling bullshit on bold claims, was challenged on my claim. A girl in my grade loudly told everyone I was making my new life of crime up, and I would be damned if I was going to be shown up by Malia Criken, who didn’t even get breasts until she was 16 and had to quit gymnastics. So I’d prove it to them.

“Bring a Sesame Street sweater back here tomorrow and we’ll believe you.”

Fine. I could do that. I was a master thief, remember.

I picked the worst possible place to steal from — a tightly watched novelty store used to dealing with kids. I found a suitable sweater and sat down to contemplate my crime. Because that was how much of a mastermind I was — I’d first pick out what I wanted, sometimes even taking it in my hands, then sitting somewhere and watching everyone until I thought it was clear to shove whatever it was into my bag.

Looking back, I honestly don’t think I could have done something more conspicuous. Of course I was being watched. The same two clerks kept checking stock next to me, their eyes darting from their hands to me and back again. All the signs were there, I was going to get busted, I just didn’t see it yet.

I was too high on the idea that one could just take what they wanted with impunity. Why didn’t everyone do this? It was great! But retribution was swift.

I stuffed the sweater in my bag, put Sushi on top, and casually (I use “casually” as I saw it then, but seeing it now would probably bring a description closer to “Incredibly paranoid pre-teen, clutching her bag way too tight and furiously whipping her head back and forth”) walked out of the store. I’m slick, uncatchable. I owned the night, I was the master thief, I would live forever!!

“Miss!”

Shit.

The owner of the store, a turbaned man with a no-nonsense look walked toward me. I should run. Should I run? I’m gonna run. But I didn’t because, ultimately, even though I had recently dabbled in crime, my parents had always taught me to listen to adults.

My ambition of being the world's greatest thief was snuffed out by one obedient gesture to an authority figure.

“Open your bag.” I did.

“Take out the dog.” Crap, how could he have seen through my ruse?

I lifted Sushi, exposing the sweatshirt.

“Come with me.” He took me through the store, holding the sweater in front of him like a trophy. The store clerks watched silently as we walked by, their expressions somber.

The man took me upstairs into a little room that was filled with screens broadcasting every corner of the store, down to the little nook I had sat in contemplating my heist. I was placed in a folding chair with my back facing the cameras, an incredibly small woman was guarding the door and for a wild moment I thought I could probably take her.

“You have two choices,” The owner said. “We either call your parents and they must give us all their information so that we may sue to seek restitution.” WHAT? It was a 15 dollar sweatshirt! “Or, I call the police and they take you.”

“H-how much would my parents have to pay?” I hedged.

“We are tired of you kids coming in and taking merchandise, we’ve begun to sue any shoplifters and their family for the maximum amount in small claims. If you’re lucky, they may lower it to a few thousand and a permanent ban.”

Shit.

Shit.

Shit shit shit. Can they do that? I was in trouble. My mom was going to kill me. They made me call her on speaker phone in front of them.

“Mom?” My voice cracked.

“Allie? What’s wrong?”

“I’m at the store down the block. I was caught shoplifting. You need to come down here. They’re saying they’re going to sue us.” I said it in a rush. There was a long pause. Silence. I’d gone too far, she was going to be so upset.

“Oh, Allie,” she sighed in that heartbreaking, dejected way that only parents who are profoundly disappointed in their children can muster. “Tell them I’ll be right there. Don’t sign anything.”

And she was gone, and I was left in the dark room with two teenage employees acting as guards, and a dog on my lap. The two women were watching me intently. Desperate to normalize the situation, and working from a place of prepubescent insecurity, I tried to make friends with my guards.

“So, heh, I feel so embarrassed.” A slight nod from the brunette. I took this as a sign to continue.

“I feel so stupid.” I prompted again. Just a raised eyebrow from the blonde. Maybe a little more persuasion, then.

“Did… did either of you ever do stupid stuff as a kid?”

“Once I took a scrunchie from a drugstore by accident.” The brunette offered.

“Oh?” I perked, feeling the opening; maybe they’ll be nice to me, maybe they’ll like me — for some reason that’s all I was really worried about in that moment, that they crack a smile and joke with me a bit. I was either getting arrested or my mom was being sued, right in the midst of unemployment. I had to calm down, I had to make these girls like me. I had full-blown Stockholm syndrome within three minutes of sitting in that back room.

The brunette went on.

“I took a scrunchie by accident, and when I realized I had it I walked straight back and returned it. I was a good kid, though.” Ouch. OK, plan B.

“Do you want to pet my dog?” I offered, lamely.

What seemed like an eternity later and after a few more pathetic advances of winning sympathy had failed (not knowing the girls’ names I had affectionately named them Stern and Sterner in my mind), A shout.

Stern and Sterner looked over my shoulder, eyes wide. I turned too and there, on the video screens, holding a bible high above her head and shouting something I couldn’t decipher, was my mom.

She was wearing the pantsuit that she had purchased cheap for generic business interviews. The rough fabric and fully buttoned collar gave it the resemblance of an extremely conservative outfit, and I noticed a silver cross, given to my mother by my religious aunt but never worn, glinting around her neck. Her hair was twisted up into a tight bun. And she had a bible with her, which made me wonder briefly ‘When did she take that from a hotel?.’

She was clutching the cross at her neck so hard her knuckles looked white. Sterner turned on the sound to the video monitors.

“-where is that creature that calls herself daughter? Where is that wretched little devil?!” My mom was demanding the owner.

Already a small crowd of employees had gathered around her, trying to contain the sudden outburst of religious fervor. Stern and Sterner looked at each other, then looked at me with panicked expressions. I didn’t know what to say — this wasn’t my mom, this was some crazed nun who had stolen her face.

Watching my mom being led towards the back room I had a sudden and terrifying realization: I had broken my mother.

Before I could even form a coherent sentence she was in the room with us. Stern and Sterner scooted their chairs back, leaving a clear path to where I sat (so much for solidarity).

My mother clutched the bible and waved it a bit in front of her, as if I needed to be warded off before being spoken to. My mom, who was usually very pretty, wore a mask of anger and righteousness that twisted her face into a horrible continence. I saw her left eye twitch a bit as she looked at me. Juvie wouldn’t be that bad, right? And I bet I’d even get a bunk bed.

“All this time.” Mom started, her voice low but wavering with suppressed emotion.

“All this time. I’ve given you everything. And all this time it was for nothing. You are worthless, an abomination unto god. Give me the animal.” Stunned, I held out my little dog and she took him by the scruff of his neck. “This thing is going to the pound. And you, child, are going to wish you had never abused God’s love. I’m going to make sure of that!”

The owner suddenly held up both hands in supplication, eyes-wide at the unexpected crazy in his office.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, there’s no need to get so upset, we have a procedure to follow, if you could just sign-” my mother continued as if she hadn’t even heard the man.

“I wish I had never kept you, I wish I didn’t have to see your sinful, wretched face. I’m pulling you out of school, this was your last chance, and I have given you so many chances, I will homeschool you from now on. Get up.” She turned to the staff of the store, who had crowded in to watch the display. “I apologize for my wicked child, GOD will deal with her, with me as his servant. Thank you, and God bless you.”

Tears streaming down my face my mother grabbed me roughly by the ear and started dragging me out of the store, in her other hand carrying my dog like a foul smelling bag of sod. The employees were stunned for a minute before snapping out of it and running after us.

“Wait, she wasn’t violent or resisting or anything -”

“She made a mistake, we all make mistakes, right -?”

“Ma’am, if you could just step back into the office we can sort this -”

All went ignored as she marched me out. I looked back at the employees, a plaintive expression on my face. They all wore a mixture of stricken pity, confusion, anger and fear. No one dared lay a hand or stop this crazed zealot, and I could tell they felt somehow guilty for unleashing her on me, even though it was my fault for stealing something in the first place.

As we rounded the door Sterner gave a small wave and timid smile. Too little, too late.

My mother opened the car door, tossed me in, put the dog on my lap and walked around the car. For a moment I thought about running. The terror of being caught by a security guard and held with the threat of police and monetary reparations suddenly felt entirely manageable compared to the woman who was opening up the driver’s door.

I was still in shock, and could barely comprehend what had just happened. I had broken my mother. Shit!

She slid in next to me. “Are you alright?” No trace of crazy religious lady.

I started crying and she hugged me, stroking my hair and telling me it’s ok, that she loved me, and that if I ever stole anything again she wasn’t going to rescue me.

“But I was pretty good, right?” She asked, loosening her bun and unbuttoning her starched collar. She laughed. “When you called I didn’t know what to do, but I was watching ‘Carrie’ and I thought … well, I guess it worked.”

I never stole anything after that night, and I certainly never underestimated my mother again.