The Thief’s Journal
May 24, 2012 | by Chris Wallace
Some days, after eighth grade at Emerson Junior High, I would walk to the 7-11 on Overland, in the shadows of the monumental Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, and just loiter there. I never bought anything, but walked up and down the rows staring intensely at Corn Nuts, Big League Chew, and sundry sparkling sugar bombs.
I didn’t then, nor do I now, have anything resembling a sweet tooth. I’ll trade dessert and candy for savory treats every time (I loved Funyuns, whatever they were), and yet, I wanted a snack. I didn’t have any money, of course—I was twelve—but it wasn’t as if I were starving to death. At the time of my choosing I could walk to my father’s apartment nearby, where he would make me green-chile chicken with polenta, or leg of lamb and gratin dauphinois, or maybe even steak and mashed potatoes. But my dad doesn’t do snacks. He might have food for the entire week, but when I open the fridge, there’s nothing there.
The bus would take a good forty-five minutes to my mom’s, where the fridge was full of Clausen pickles, deli meats, and cheese for my beloved Triscuits. I could have skated if I’d have brought my board, but, forty-five dolorous, head-pounding minutes of boredom and discomfort, sitting next to cat ladies and gangbangers on the rough, tough, and dangerous bus … I wanted a snack. I needed a treat.
By now several minutes had passed—and several months of these visits—and the clerk/owner had grown suspicious. I was standing in the aisle directly in front of him while he glared at me, awaiting my move. A customer slid in front of him to pay for a Slurpee, and, with expert reflexes, I grabbed something, anything, wrapped in high-gloss foil, tucked it into my pocket just as I had almost every day for the last five months, and turned to make my exit.
The clerk threw a finger at me like a dart, rapidly making his way to the end of the counter so he could confront me face to face. Cutting me off right at the point where I would have stood to pay, he briskly patted my pockets.
“What you have?” he demanded.
I played dumb, repeating indignantly I didn’t have anything, while he shouted at me with growing frustration.
And then, faster than I could believe, it was over. For whatever reason, he gave up this inquest—perhaps other customers were coming in and he didn’t want to be seen arguing with a child. He turned and walked down to the end of the counter to resume his position behind the register, and, while he passed behind the screen of cigarettes, I simply picked up the shrink-wrapped whatever from where I had set on the counter, tucked it back into my pocket and walked out into the parking lot. The school-bus-size golden angel on top of the temple across the street was catching the afternoon light. She raised her trumpet to her lips and blew a giant, celebratory honk.
That afternoon was the closest I ever came to getting caught. Even when, the next year, I graduated to nicking nudie magazines, I was never in real danger. I’d torn up my lower back and was receiving physical therapy at St. John’s Hospital—where I’d been born—in Santa Monica a couple times a month. On each visit, after the ultrasound and electric stim and Icy Hot, I would wander into the lobby pharmacy and sort of mosey toward the back of the magazine section, where smoke-gray plastic boards covered all but the titles on the lurid covers. Surely the store had closed-circuit cameras, but the clerks were so indifferent to my petty crimes that they simply turned the other way when I unshouldered my backpack, slid some silky sheeted smut in between notebooks, and marched out to catch the Blue Bus home.
I remember that the cool kids—the stoners, skaters, taggers, and thieves who hung out atop “the vents,” a grated ventilation shaft outside Century City mall, used to steal as a kind of competitive, social sport. There was a security guard at the Gap in the mall—a Bo Jackson–like Adonis—who relished the opportunity to run down some middle-class tween flirting with kleptomania. He had famously hawked one of our best athletes and toughest criminals in a full sprint on Avenue of the Americas, and so the game was always afoot: Who would go into the lion’s den to prove their mettle and win rank as a badass?
I often sat with this crew as they bandied about their exploits, real and imagined, and never mentioned that I’d stolen from, not just the famous Gap, but also the high-stakes Nordstrom’s in the Westside Pavilion. I never told anyone of my crimes, never did them in sight of an audience, and never showed off any of the booty.
But, if my thieving wasn’t about peer pressure, why did I do it? The grand total of my year-plus spree netted me less that a hundred dollars in goods, so I wasn’t exactly Clyde Barrow. I felt none of the erotic charge we’d expect of Genet (or, at least, the Genet as described by Sartre). I am patently not the outlaw saint/Prometheus of his novels, looking to purify and putrefy myself in a single act. (At least, not that I know of.)
All I ever felt, when getting that five-finger discount, was terror—and not the good, bungee-jumping kind, but the serial-killer-in-the-next-room kind. My absolute greatest fear in life is of prison—of imprisonment, of the actual prison, and the culture of prison, the violence, the dissolution of freedom and privacy. I am the poster boy for the saying “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” so there was no masochistic desire to be punished for my transgressions—I didn’t want to be caught with my hand in the cookie jar; I just kinda sorta wanted the cookies.
To this day, sex and snacks are sacred things, personal things that I enjoy on my own—they are my treats. When I’m bored, or upset, or just need a break from the piece I am writing (say, right now), sex and/or a snack will pick me up, set me straight (at least until I need more). I could no more share these moments (with an inmate, or anyone) than I could have asked my parents for Playboy money. While I love a festive meal and collaborative congress as much as the next man, when taken alone, these indulgences become rites of escapism and a kind of Jungian reward—Scooby snacks for the soul.
For the dreamer, the only child, or the writer of fiction (or, God help you, all of the above), fantasy sex—solitary sex, imaginative sex—is fundamental. For a clotheshorse who couldn’t, and still cannot, afford a thread of the gear he likes, a couple of free shirts came in handy. For a glutton with twenty-first-century eating neuroses, the snacks were a kind of communion with a private spirit.
I stopped stealing for good, when, at about thirteen, I took up tagging in earnest. Though also a considerable danger for the can’t-do-the-time set, graffiti fit with my artistic aspirations, and my felt, if not confirmed, outlaw status. But the legacy of my crime career haunts me still. Even now when I walk out of a bookstore, a gift shop, or a deli without buying something, I have to fight the urge to show my hands to the clerk, to prove I haven’t stolen anything. This means I exit overly slowly, awkward and suspicious—exactly how I would act, in fact, if I had stolen something. I remain marked, guilty, or perhaps I always felt that way. My coat sleeves all have that Raskolnikovian sheen about the elbow and my conscience too often shows signs of wear.
In philosophical moments I wonder, Did I always feel this strange cosmic guilt I still carry, and steal bubble gum to give the feeling substance, or do I just rue the illicitly come by stack of Playboys on my conscience?
I think I’ll smoke a whole bag of grass and ruminate on it, ask Freud if I’m just repressing a desire to deflower virgins or something, maybe read some Jung and some Genet, consider my guilt, my transgressions, my immortal soul. For a while. Until I need a little sex and a snack.
Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York.