The Reasonable Shopper

Thomas Hoepker, Escalator inside the Toys R’ Us Store in Times Square, 2002. Courtesy ICP.

I remember the first time I did it: it was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, after class. By the end of my seven years in Los Angeles, I was so good at shoplifting clothes that the maiden voyage story didn’t mean much. I had the hands for shoplifting — delicate, dexterous and soft — comrades would say. My face at the time, which was young and distinctly sharp (but not exaggeratedly so) was not out of place in global retail havens either.

My outfits, purchased from places I would take from, marked me as an upwardly-mobile and friendly shopper, a young brown woman who was desired and desiring, at home in the American dream of unfettered consumerism. On most days, I would dress like I was privileged, but casually so. I wore lots of distressed jeans with ridiculously soft T-shirts, printed rompers, overalls with cheeky tank tops, and off shoulder velvet dresses that reminded me of the clothes girls from established Connecticut families wore at my $50,000 a year Northeast liberal arts college. I’d pair these with butchy shoes, hard backpacks and ironic, retro top hats — things these same girls would use to cue their familiarity with roughness, edginess. To me, this was the look of white cultural capital accumulated over generations, a capital that was equally at ease squatting in a Portland basement or spending a summer in Martha’s Vineyard. These were clothes I could afford on a $1800 monthly graduate stipend, but I had to think hard about each purchase.

While I had a good grasp on what the old money white girl look was, it took me a while to pin its easy flow, or what I considered the habitus of this aesthetic, really. I was trying both because I wanted to fit in, and was wondering if I could. Affirmation finally came one day, from a friendly Caucasian store manager at Target (where I never took a thing). She asked if it was possible she’d seen me in an All Saints catalogue. Now, All Saints was the First World in my geography of petty theft, and I strived to be skilled enough to take one of their slinky dresses home. I could already see the arc of smoke from a Benson Lights cigarette that would fall on the crushed silk when I wore it out; I could see my Bangladeshi friend’s smile when I would pull it out of my leather backpack and lay it out on her stolen Anthropologie laced eyelet throw.

The fleeting thrill I felt at Target was the thrill of having arrived. This victory was made possible not by following an order I felt innately unsuited for, but by working the system through subverting it. I was charting my own territory within a flawed land, and in my own way, poking a hole in the global supply chain because most things I took were made from the place I was born. Operating from the shadowy margins then, signalled to me that there was a way out for the subaltern sartorialist who refused to follow the didactics of global capitalism in which she was made a wanting cog. The act of taking without paying said to me, in almost yogic bliss: ‘these things are free, I am free.’

The retail managers I got to know over time — Katy, Sadia, Siobhan and Greg — were either high all the time, dim, or willingly complicit. They’d sometimes compliment me on stuff I had taken under their noses, and respond to my exchange requests on stolen goods with the tachks tachks of their chipped gel manicures hitting the cash register. I don’t know why they never ratted, but maybe they could relate to my leisurely, aestheticised struggle. Maybe they knew there was something quite uninteresting about straight-laced consumption. Maybe they had an inkling of what what stealing means through a coloured lens.

Perhaps I was overestimating my right to be understood, but I would wonder if they knew that, for me, taking without paying was not a Winona Ryder-esque move. It was not akin to how rich white girls in films are portrayed when they steal: often in groups, having a glamorous, giggly blast, and driving off in decent cars. In these sexy depictions, stolen objects are both assumed easy for the character(s) in question to purchase and aligned with the other lifestyle objects they legally acquire: a second hand SUV outgrown by a parent, abundant Apple technology, and nice handbags to put away the loot. But these ladies, who existed both in real life and in music videos, were from a cushioned theatre in which I was a temporary, vulnerable, albeit skilled player. I was always alone when I took, and I was always on foot. I had a tired sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle, which was almost always in need of gas: unlike my clothes, the car was a fairly accurate signifier of how I was living.

A mega, multi-brand retail store in the uber white west side of the city was like my neighbourhood gym: it was where I’d go to flex my take-without-pay muscle. It was there that I got my first pair of skinny red jeans ($58), a mini leather skirt, lacy bras that fell apart in the laundry ($32 a pop), a velvet tank top, and a frankly, hideous gold-plated ring with a large ‘M’ on it. The clothes were hard-earned items, shit my badass friends applauded me for. But the accessories, I thought, were fully deserved — much like the implicit ‘thank you for your loyalty’ mirchis or dhania — fresh chilli and coriander — a local grocer back home would toss into my grocery bag when rounding up the bill. Of course, in Los Angeles, the managers were not sabziwallas, but because our conversations were reminiscent of the kinds of informal, friendly exchanges that seem discordant with a heavily surveilled market, I often thought of them like Indian grocers. I suspected they may be OK with something unaccounted for to slip through the system. And even if they would not, the risk was somehow compulsory.

At the time, I needed these free things like a hug on a cold day: the hideous ring, the beaded Hazda appropriated tribal necklace and the sparkly headband. They kept me working diligently in the system, teaching all day, and perpetuating the great monster of American capitalism on a minimum wage stipend. At least that’s how I justified this brand of theft in my head. I thought of myself as an unfortunate foreign graduate student, trying to eke out a good life in an expensive city. I thought I deserved something free from a country so rich it had me in its ($2000 Olympia Le Tan) clutches. Leisure brands built for hipsters were where I thought I should extract this surplus: places where white people with perfect teeth and sailing skills and oysters in their freezers walked around, scrutinising $9 Pom juice bottles for preservatives. Taking without paying was my foot drag in an endless race. It was my inability to digest the cute labels announcing enormous price tags in neat, sober serif, font sizes so small they demanded perfect eyesight and access to your parents’ capacious health insurance plans. I had the vision, but no K21.

I never knew when or what I was going to lift. The Time to Take was a calm, concrete feeling that would spread like room temperature butter on toast. Walking around the store, my body would casually scan for cameras, peruse the aisles, and when the time was right, I’d surrender to an emancipation pure and brief: a feeling much like leaving the stove on while attending to a phone call in the other room. And though I knew what I liked, it usually wasn’t what ended up mine: somewhere I think I knew that if I began to rely on this method to fuel my actual desires, I’d be losing my own game. This was not about the things themselves, of course. Every so often I had to remind myself that they had no value, and that like most shoplifters, I lost attraction to them soon after attainment. To take was to feel oneself justifiably tampering with a system to find that it is the system itself that is flawed —  a bit like opening a lock with the wrong set of keys.

But this process was not devoid of fear. I once coughed dramatically in front of a camera I was worried may have been on, thinking that anyone watching would pass me off as ill, and too young to be so. I also considered the disproportionate consequences that shoplifting might have for an international student like me: the risk of being deported, never to return, my scholarship thrown into the sea and a future devastated by an embarrassing habit. An American friend of mine once got caught shoplifting when she was underage, and all she could remember of the ‘Macy’s Jail’ (a small room in the back of the store with weak handcuffs chained to the wall) was the shockingly bright lighting and Donna Summers playing in the background.

Shortly into my taking career, I realised I was not alone. I was part of an invisible, powerful collective. Towards the end of every month, there would be layers of sticky barcodes hidden below benches and behind changing room mirrors. These were communally archived by a piece of gum that held all our anonymous sins together; our contribution to the estimated $13 billion that the U.S. loses to shoplifting annually. There was also lots of graffiti in these spaces, mostly un-interesting things like FUCK YOU followed by the brand name. I once read the words ‘I won’t die naked,’ which stuck in my head. To me they professed an undying, haunting commitment to the practice, a lifelong membership in an illicit community. ‘This person could be our shoplifting president,’ I thought.

Two things made me stop. One was a close call: I was trying to take a neon swimsuit and didn’t notice an additional security tag in the built-in-bra. The damn thing went off when I walked out to the street, and I was called back in for a serious interrogation. A chemical watermelon scent released from the big bubbles the store manager blew with her gum as she asked her automated questions; this somehow foreshadowed for me the artificiality of the event — a brief nightmare that would soon be over, which it was.

When I re-tell stories about this time in my life, almost a decade later, friends often get fixated on the details of this particular event, the chilling moment of getting caught. Miranda July supposedly peed on the floor when she got busted, and in Patti Smith’s account,1 you feel all the valves of a racing heart. I can identify and empathise, but for me the security alarm going off is — unlike in these narratives — not the climax of the story. Because when it did, time stopped. It felt like a hand pressed too hard on a pulse, an elevator stalled too long on a graveyard floor.

The second, more powerful reason I stopped was a new habit: I challenged myself to stop spending money on anything extraneous, and use whatever I had down to the last bit. Then began the days of losing change, tickets and pen drives to holes in peacoat linings, and using emaciated toothpaste tubes, cinched together by paper clips — ghosts of their use value.

Some would argue I had transitioned from the unethical to the Gandhian, but I have trouble with such straightforward logic. To me, this period of retail celibacy was a marker of misfit and ill-health, and equally upsetting for the marketplace. A good friend recently asked me why I couldn’t just take the middle ground and be a ‘reasonable shopper,’ the person I looked like. But at that time, I couldn’t imagine anything worse.


Meher Varma is a cultural anthropologist based in New Delhi.

A version of this piece was previously published as ‘What It Takes’ in the Columbia Journal.

  1. P Smith, ‘Off the Shelf,’ The New Yorker, 2011.