shopping-mall-escalator-zmI have seen maybe ten New York City shoplifters in action, myself included. My own shoplifting episode occurred shortly after I moved here. Shopping in the old Alexander’s department store for a new shoulder bag, I selected a few I liked and tried them on, slipping the straps over my shoulder to see how comfortable each felt. Not sufficiently impressed to breakout my wallet, I left the store, passing as usual the security guard stationed at the door. A block away on Lexington, I felt an odd, unfamiliar sensation on my right side. Looking down, I was flabbergasted to see I was wearing two shoulder bags – my own — and one of those I had tried on in the store. Oh boy! Sporting two purses hanging from my shoulder, including one with a large dangling Alexander’s sales tag, I had calmly sauntered past the store security guard. What if he had spotted it? What if he had hauled me in as a shoplifter? What if the police had been called? I could have been (gulp) arrested.

I stood in the street, uncertain what to do. If I returned the bag, what could I possibly say to store personnel that would sound plausible? Who would believe that anyone would have been dopey enough to leave the store unaware they were carrying store merchandise – and then compound that dopiness by attempting to return it? And if I simply attempted to replace the purse back on its peg without a word to anyone, that could look weird to their cameras too. Suspicious even. Every possible move seemed impossible.

All this agitated hubbub was in strong contrast to the first pro shoplifter I saw in action a few months later. He sailed into a small, local discount store, stopped at a shelf of shampoos a few feet away from me, dropped a canvas bag on the floor, stretched his arms out wide, scooped up a huge armful of shampoo bottles from the shelf, dropped them in his bag, snatched up the bag’s handles and briskly walked out the door. He was so swift, so blasé, so indifferent to the fact I was watching him, his chutzpah left me speechless.

The second shoplifter was not so blasé. Furtively glancing around a Madison Avenue dress shop, he was crouching down over a blouse rack in such a peculiar position, he immediately caught my attention. Partially obscured from view, he appeared to be furiously stuffing bunches of blouses into the front of his jacket – blouses that were somehow disappearing from sight. Just as I started for the counter to alert store personnel, he straightened up and shot for the door.

I have also seen prime steaks being pilfered in my neighborhood super market. (Why bother snatching baloney when it’s just as easy to snatch filet mignon?) Again working at a speedy clip, a man who looked like he had seen better days, was standing at the meat counter stuffing multiple packages of steak down the front of his jeans. By the time I approached the manager up front, The steak lover had disappeared with his pricey treasure. Which was probably a good break for any later shoppers; had the man been caught, I uneasily suspected the manager would have simply tossed the now dicey steaks back into the meat section.

I have only seen two physical confrontations involving shoplifters – and one was extremely physical, when an Upper East Side florist, shouting in a European accent, started bashing a man’s face outside his shop. Apparently the man had been unfortunate enough to try stealing an outside plant from a florist who not only looked like a professional boxer, but one who felt justified in beating the hell out of a thief. Desperately trying to break away, the bruised and bloody shoplifter leaped into street traffic, but the florist was having none of it and stayed on his tail, hammering away at him. When they reached the other side of the street, a passerby tried to break up the fight. Forget it. The florist was out for more blood and he would have gotten it, had a police car not pulled up at that moment.

The second physical incident involved a young, well dressed woman, who also made the serious mistake of attempting to shoplift stuff from the wrong place. It happened at Century 21, a large downtown discount department store that always has a highly alert security presence at the front door. Detained in the lobby, the young woman was fighting to wrench herself free from a security guard who was firmly locked on her as additional back up piled in. Yelling at them to let her go and thrashing wildly in every direction, she was attempting to look annoyed at their “mistake” in detaining her, but it wasn’t working. Instead she radiated guilt, shock and disbelief. Her panicky reaction suggested she had never given a thought to being caught, to being stopped at the door and physically restrained and, on top of all that, being publicly humiliated in front of so many people.

If any would be shoplifters had seen these last two incidents, I sense their interest in shoplifting would have cooled super fast.

More adventures on the shopping trail: