My history as a narc
I’ve always been a stickler for the rules. If people would just collectively agree to follow the rules, life would be better for all of us. I never cut in line, I break out in hives if I try and pass through a yellow light and it turns red while I cross, and I feel really, really bad about getting a refill from a drink refill restaurant as I'm leaving.
As a child, I was, of course, a tattletale. I’m not proud of it - it’s just the way it was. Being a tattletale is one thing, being a tattletale with a smidgeon of power - that’s something entirely different. It took working my first retail job during college to learn my quest for justice could bring out a dark side in me when it came to enforcing the rules.
During my senior year at Texas A&M, I began working at Hastings, a store that specialized in movies, music, books, and video games. I needed the cash that the job promised but I also found that I actually really enjoyed working in retail. I loved alphabetizing DVDs and working the till and, quickly after joining the team, I was promoted to shift manager. Once I was given the keys to lock up, though, I was also introduced behind the curtain of the retail industry to its great plight: shrinkage. Whether it’s team members or teenagers, people will steal from stores. That’s a given. It happens and there’s only so much a store can do to prevent it. I was trained for a few things to look out for and was given a quick tutorial on what to do if I ever suspected shoplifting but, other than that, I was left on my own to stew about the injustice of shoplifters.
As I discovered more and more signs that the Hastings I worked at was constantly being stolen from, I began to find my goat constantly got by the ever-present thief. From the obvious stuffing of merchandise under a coat to more subtle tricks such as switching price tags or returning books that had obviously been read already, I considered every theft a personal affront onto me. I made it my goal to catch at least one perp during each shift. I wasn’t always effective.
I apprehended my first crook as he tried to open a DVD case and shove the disk up his shirt. As I snuck up behind the kid, catching him red-handed, I found his attempts to lie amusing. Without an inch of sympathy, I walked him to the front counter where I planned to call the police. Unfortunately, we were short-staffed that night and, in the excitement of having caught my first criminal, I didn’t think that the perp would try to escape as soon as I turned my back to make the phone call. Within moments of taking my eyes off of him, the kid was out the door and down the street. He didn’t take the merchandise with him, though. I considered it a draw.
The second encounter with a shoplifter came when I took a break from working the till to use the restroom. The restrooms are always a hotbed for theft. Specifically of porn. Hastings, unlike most other bookstores, has no problem selling pornographic magazines. During my time at the store, I found every kind of porno (straight, gay, fetish, redneck) shoved in the bathroom trashcan.
Men (and sometimes women) looking to pass the time on a Sunday afternoon, would pick out a dirty magazine from the rack, sneak it into the bathroom where they would enjoy it before shoving it into a trashcan, the toilet’s tank or, worst of all, gently putting it back into its wrapper and replacing it on the rack.
Entering the restroom, the first thing I noticed was the sound of a plastic wrapper being taken off of a magazine. This sound was one I had become familiar with after a semester living in a dorm room with a roommate who'd pull out his Playboy stash after the lights had gone out and he thought I was asleep. Sure enough, moments after that crinkle, I saw a hand reach down to discard the unmistakable wrapper that encases only the finest of smut.
“I hope you’re planning to buy that,” I said with my best impression of authority. My voice cracked.
The kid stammered that he did not know what I was talking about. Not willing to argue with a man on the toilet, I told him that I'd be waiting outside to make sure that he paid for the porno after his bathroom break.
Unfortunately, after leaving the bathroom, my attention was pulled to a problem at the front register. When I finally got a chance to look back at the restroom, I saw the kid sneaking towards the music section. He wasn’t going to get away that easily. I slowly stalked my prey through the music section. I didn’t hide the fact that I was following him. I wanted the kid to know. And know he did. He watched me from the corner of his eyes as he absent-mindedly browsed through the used CDs. Coming up right up to him, I asked if he enjoyed the magazine.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said without much conviction.
“The pornographic reading material. Did you enjoy it?” In retrospect, I realize that my little Dirty Harry impression was probably taking it a bit far. In fact, it was my attempt to intimidate the perp into a confession that attracted the attention of another customer.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I heard a woman scream into my ear. “I didn’t just hear you accusing that young man of stealing a magazine. Where’s your evidence? What have you got?”
Startled by the conversation’s intruder, I turned to look at the woman who was making the scene. “I’m just trying to talk to this gentleman about a magazine he was about to pay for,” I attempted to explain.
It was no use. The woman had officially made the problem her business and launched into a fiery sermon, unrelenting in it’s busting of my chops. Looking away from her, I noticed that the kid had slipped away from my grasp and was high tailing it out of the store.
“Look, he got away,” I told the woman.
“Good for him. Even if he did steal that magazine, it’s not like he hurt nobody.”
I hated that excuse. “I wasn’t hurting anybody when I tried to steal the candy bar.” “Nobody’s gonna get hurt if I read the book in the store instead of buying it.”
Sure. You’re right. By pocketing a CD from a store, you’re not causing genocide, spreading plague, or giving anybody a Charlie horse. What you are doing, though, is ensuring that the cost of the merchandise will steadily rise in order for the store to recover the loss of revenue from stolen products. Employees will be paid less, leading to more team members attempting to steal themselves. It’s a never-ending circle of crime. I acted like a narc asshole (and, fifteen years later I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat afraid that I confronted the wrong kid) but shoplifting is still a dick move and hurts the community as a whole.
In the end, I never directly brought a perp to justice. I was able to hand over video surveillance of two kids stealing a DVD boxset that led to their eventual arrest but I wasn’t there to enjoy my victory. I saw with my own eyes a kid stuff a video game down his pants pocket but, when I confronted him about it, the kid pulled a Criss Angel and made it disappear. His parents even volunteered to frisk him. The game had vanished.
Now, years out of the retail game, I sometimes catch myself fantasizing about catching a shoplifter and bringing down the swift hammer of justice. As I walk through Wal-Mart, I can spot the likely signs of criminal activities — empty packages lying on the floor, kids walking around with huge puffy jackets even though it’s 90 degrees outside, and customers carrying single DVD cases into the depths of the clothing department where they will most-likely rip open the packaging and stuff the disk down their pants.
I’m not a moral lighthouse of derring-do or anything. I have my vices just like everybody else on the planet. I just ask myself every day, What Would Batman Do?
Batman wouldn’t steal; he’d drop shoplifters off of rooftops and break their legs. OK, maybe Batman is a narc and I shouldn’t emulate his behavior. Seeing how the prison industrial system is the way it is, it’s more harmful to get the police involved in cases like this. I get all of this now. But, if I ever catch anybody shoplifting, you can bet your ass I’m going to make them feel really bad about their choices. I'm talking real big finger-wagging energy.