Petty Theft: Lessons I Learned From Shoplifting Cigarettes

The other week at my Toastmasters meeting, one of our members gave a speech and shared some of those stories that you don’t want to tell your kids. (Fortunately, I don’t have any kids.) Anyhow, one of the stories in the speech took me on a trip down memory lane. The speaker shared about what it had been like to shoplift cigarettes as a young boy. Almost instantly, I was transported back in time to Macungie, Pennsylvania, where I lived when I was eleven years old.

The year was 1988. The season was summer. School was out, the sun was in the sky without a cloud, and several of us (the others shall remain nameless) were headed out for an idyllic afternoon of bike rides. “Bike ride” was the code word that I used, and my parents bought it for quite some time. Technically, I wasn’t lying. I did ride my bike to my destinations, and there were three of them primarily. There was the grocery store, the pharmacy, and “the rock.” Sometimes, we went to the grocery store, and other times, we went to the pharmacy. We tried not to go to the same place too often, because we didn’t want to around suspicion. We never bought anything, and we figured that it might raise eyebrows if we came and went too often.

These were the days when cigarettes were placed in the checkout lanes next to the candy and you could just grab a pack without asking a store employee behind the counter to get it for you. Those smokes were ripe for the picking. Also, the rolling papers were right next to the cigarettes in the grocery store, and we lifted some of those. At the ripe age of eleven, we had the brilliant idea to smoke rolling papers with nothing inside them. We later graduated to cigarettes (which we deemed “the real ones.”) We might say, “Hey, check it out, so-and-so’s gonna smoke a real one!” While we were at it, we usually grabbed some sodas and maybe even some Big League Chew.

Once I realized that I could steal with impunity, the experience became addictive. I never felt even the slightest twinge of guilt. There was no Jiminy Crickett on my shoulder. There was nothing but sheer delight. I even wondered why more people didn’t shoplift. It was such a fun thing to do!

I was not skillful about my technique. I have no idea how it is that I didn’t get caught. I would clumsily slip things into my pocket right in full view of the employees. I tried to wait until no one was looking. I would often unload my loot right outside the store right next to the front entrance. Sometimes, I’d make another trip back in to pick up a second load (while hoping that no one would find my poorly concealed cache of stolen goods). I did start to back away from the pharmacy, because after awhile, the employees started to watch me a bit more closely. I’m pretty sure that with today’s surveillance technology, I would have been caught on my first attempt.

I specifically preferred to shoplift cigarettes because stealing candy was anticlimactic. There was the tingle I felt walking into the store, knowing what I was about to do. Then, there was the moment of slipping the item into my pocket, flinching at the possibility that someone might have just seen me. Then, there was the way it felt walking out the door, wondering if this would be the time when my unlucky numbers came up, half-expecting to hear a “Hey, where do you think you’re going?” or feel a tap on the shoulder. Then, there was the moment of relief, when I knew that the coast was clear and that I’d pulled it off yet again. However, once the thrill of escaping undetected was over, there wasn’t much left to look forward to. With cigarettes, though, there was another adventure to be had after the acquisition phase.

I didn’t particularly have to worry about being caught with candy. I had to be careful not to be caught with it often, and not to be caught with too much of it. I didn’t want to end up having to explain how I’d come into more candy than I had the money to pay for, but that wasn’t too hard. All I had to do was eat the candy before I got home. Even if I got caught with a lighter, I could explain that away. My parents knew I had lighters, because I used to light off firecrackers. (That came to an end when I set a bail of straw on fire, but that’s a story for another day.) But there could be no getting caught with cigarettes. There also could be no coming home with the smell on my clothes. In retrospect, I’m not sure how my parents didn’t pick up on the smell. I know I couldn’t have done as good a job covering my tracks as I thought I was doing. But in any case, each risk of getting caught added to the thrill of the experience.

Last but not least, there was the experience of smoking. That was where “the rock” came in. It was, as its name suggests, a rock. It was big, and it was easy to hide behind. Cars couldn’t see us from the road. At the age of eleven, there was nothing quite like the feeling of being really bad that came with lighting up a shoplifted Camel. (I ended up moving over to Marlboros after trying a handful of different brands.) At first, I didn’t inhale and didn’t realize I was supposed to. Then, I coughed and gagged. Then, I played it “tough.” I started out puffing on empty twisted rolling papers. I never did learn to like those much, but it didn’t matter, because I was being a rebel and I felt really cool. When I smoked my first “real one,” I got sick and dizzy from the nicotine. But eventually, the taste grew on me. It was the taste of rebellion. As a skinny computer nerd, I felt the need to be bad, and puffing on cancer sticks filled a void deep within my soul.

My adventures came to an abrupt end one day when I carelessly left a pack of Zig Zag rolling papers in the pocket of my shorts, and my mother found them in the laundry. That was a very bad day in my world. I was in for it. I got off relatively easy, though. I met another ex-shoplifter once whose mother had turned him in to the local sheriff. I just got grounded. That was partly due to the fact that I lied my ass off and my parents mostly bought it. I laid low for awhile; I didn’t really pick up the habit of smoking again until I was fifteen. (That, also, is a story for another day.)

The experience taught me that I’m not very good at sneaking around or lying. If I lie, or even if I try to withhold a half-truth, I squirm in my seat. I give myself away with facial ticks and hand gestures. I talk really fast, and I become shifty and nervous. I would be the worst spy in the world. My shoplifting days also showed me that, when it seems like I’m pulling things off beautifully, a day of reckoning might be waiting right around the corner. I’ve also learned that most people notice a lot more than they let on.

I have become more honest, not because I’m a better person, but because I’ve come to recognize that honesty is a better strategy for getting what I want. The only thing keeping me from being a criminal is the knowledge that I would get caught. I would love to be able to say that I came to see the light, and that I eventually learned that stealing is wrong. I would be lying if I said this. I still feel no guilt over the fact that I stole. I don’t feel any regret or remorse. I laugh when I think about it. I am so radically insensitive to the needs and feelings of others that I may be a borderline sociopath. I haven’t become an upstanding citizen; I’ve only learned to impersonate one. I don’t steal, but only because I don’t like looking over my shoulder. I don’t lie, but only because I know that I’m an awful liar. My morally- and ethically-correct behavior did not result from becoming a better person, but from becoming a more skillful strategist.

What I’m left with, as I conclude this blog post, is a paradox. Could it be that I’m being dishonest by not stealing? At my core, I’m a thief. By not stealing, I’m pretending to be something other than what I am. Could it be that my honesty is a lie? By nature, I am a liar. By telling the truth, I am pretending to be something I’m not. It reminds me of Matthew 23:27-28: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” I’m pretty sure Jesus was talking about people like me.

Despite all of the personal self-development work I’ve done, I’m still the same rotten little kid who stole cigarettes from the grocery store. I don’t feel bad about this; in fact, I find the idea kind of amusing in a dark sort of way. Every day, my mind is filled with visions of the crimes I would commit if I knew I could get away with them. I wonder if I’m any different from the rest of my species in this regard.

How about you? Are you a genuinely good person, or are you an imposter like me? (Of course, if you’re an imposter, you might not admit it…)

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