In the early 2000s, I saw a giant crane lift a not-so-small shop on the corner of a street, raise it high in the air over several other neighbouring buildings, then slowly swing it around in a 180-degree arc and set it down in a new place demarcated for it. The whole operation couldn’t have taken more than 30 minutes and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember thinking at the time that what I had just witnessed could be literally termed ‘shop lifting’. This variation, however, I have only witnessed just the one time.
But it is to the word’s other sense — the practice of ‘knowingly taking goods from an establishment in which they are displayed for sale without paying for them’ — that I must devote the rest of this article.
As with a lot of words in the English language, shoplifting has a few synonyms of its own, too. It has been variously referred to as ‘shrinkage’, ‘boosting’ and the ‘five finger discount’. I have, on a couple of occasions, watched shoplifters being apprehended, or chased first and then apprehended.
I have also seen a security guard —big, brawny and bald headed — make a flying dive, when no flying dive was really needed, to surprise and bring down a person he thought was a suspected shoplifter, only to miss his target and land with a sickening thud comically outstretched on the tiled floor, and remain there after inflicting a self-knock-out until the paramedics arrived. I have sometimes wondered what the outcome might have been had he actually hit his target — a somewhat scrawny man leaving the supermarket with his legally-purchased plastic bag of groceries. Given the velocity at which the dive was enacted there could have been some serious, even lethal, outcomes I have no doubt.
However, I’m not quite sure what became of the said ‘flying’ security guard for I have been shopping at the same mall for all the remaining years and have not espied him since in any guise.
In the early days of my shopping at the stores in the mall here, it became standard to be asked to reveal the contents of my backpack to the person at the checkout gate. Standard practice, which I endorse entirely. I even got used to pre-empting the procedure and unzipping the backpack even before I was asked, thereby eliciting a kindly ‘thank you, sir’ from the lady generally on duty at the gate. All good so far.
Then, one day in a fit of absentmindedness I forgot to ‘declare my backpack free of shoplifted items’ and got challenged. Apologising (for what, I’m not sure to this day) I pried the bag open and showed my purchase docket and the legally purchased items in the bag therein.
Anger at inconsistency
It was at this point I noticed that two other shoppers behind me with bags on their shoulders, were allowed to pass through unchallenged. I took to being more observant of checkout personnel since then. And soon, an unconscious or subconscious pattern began to emerge. Yesterday, shopping for groceries in another suburb, I was asked by the genial lady at the checkout counter, “Do you mind showing me your backpack before you start putting your shopping in, darling? I’m so sorry to ask.”
“Don’t be,” I told her, “In my decade here, I’ve gotten used to it. I realise through no fault of mine that I have somehow managed to acquire a shoplifter’s complexion.”
Her face went a shade of ruby red. My skin, however, is just that neat shade of brown that hides my anger. It’s an anger not at a rule or a law, but at an inconsistency. A brown-skinned man with a backpack, a white-skinned man with a backpack.
Colour shouldn’t acquire the quality of traffic lights: one meaning ‘go’ the other signalling ‘halt’.
Luckily multiculturalism is speeding through the city and, in another generation, white and brown will give way to a more neutral shade of beige.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.