AS: Do you think it's okay to shoplift?
Alice: I think it's a, like a grayscale sort of, you know like where it's somewhere in the middle, um. I mean, I need to eat. And I don't have enough money to pay for all the food and our bills. So… But the other stuff, it's not really a need, it's just, um, maybe it's a little selfish, like I, I want it so... I take it?
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
….and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Alice doesn’t remember the first thing she ever stole. That’s not her real name. She says started shoplifting when she was around 15.
Alice: To be honest it was probably something pocket-sized like a lipstick or something. And, then I sort of built up to it, I would steal clothes and stuff from Walmart and that kind of thing.
AS: When did that start?
Alice: Um, after I realized, after I realized how easy it was. That sounded kinda terrible but—I don't know, it was like a year or so, I was probably sixteen, and my family hit a really rough patch and just couldn't really afford new clothes, so I would snag stuff from Walmart.
AS: And when you say you realized how easy it was, what do you mean?
Alice: Um, in particular at Walmart, the one I'm near, they don't have a lot of cameras, and um, once I learned that barcodes don't set off the alarms, it's just a matter of finding an aisle that's empty with no cameras, and shoving it in my purse, and then acting normal, which was probably the hardest part to figure out.
AS: What would happen if you got caught?
Alice: It depends on A) Where you're caught, how much you're caught with, um, whether or not it's your first time, and I, uh, I'm a white female, so I mean, I feel like I would get off a lot easier than some other people would.
AS: How does that feel to say out loud?
Alice: It's kind of disgusting to me, but I mean, it's how the world is, so sort of use it to my advantage.
Alice has been using this advantage for more than ten years now. We first talked last winter, and she freely admitted to me that she is stealing...and that she’s breaking the law. But she says she’s developed her own guidelines for what’s okay.
Alice: I mean I do have rules that I follow. I don't ever lift from small mom and pop kind of stores, and um, I don't lift from thrift stores, even though that's insanely easy because they never have cameras, mostly because somebody else is more likely to get hurt because of it. When you lift from somewhere like Walmart they already have it built into their insurance where they have like you know, loss insurance, and so they've already budgeted for a certain amount of stealing, I guess. And, I, it just, it lessens the impact.
AS: So you—it feels like it's like a victimless crime.
Alice: Um, I would say it feels more like maybe a paper cut as opposed to like stabbing someone.
Alice didn’t want to say exactly where she lives, but described it as a rural community, of about 500 people.
Alice: It is very small and full of meth houses.
Alice: It's full of other nice people but, um, just your normal tiny little, I don't know rural town.
AS: And you said your family hit a rough patch when you were in high school?
Alice: My Dad got injured and he was, um, he's a farm hand, and he was the only breadwinner, my mom didn't work at the time, so while he was out on disability, my mom had to go and start doing—it was kind of like home healthcare, but she's not registered, so it was all under-the-table, and so they were trying to live off of that and it was not going well.
AS: So did it—did it feel like before your dad got injured that your family had enough money?
Alice: We didn't—I would never really say that we had enough money but before that we didn’t—we weren't on food stamps, I know that.
AS: What was the plan for what was going to happen for you after high school? What did you hope would happen?
Alice: Um, well I got a scholarship to a private college, and so I was gonna go to college, and get a degree in business administration. And then I was going to open a store. That was my plan.
AS: Why didn't that happen?
Alice: Oh, because I was dumb. I left, the college, to be with my boyfriend at the time. And I wound up going to a community college, and I got my two-year degree and then just started working and never went back.
AS: What's your two-year degree in?
Alice: In business administration.
AS: Has that been helpful? For getting, higher paying jobs?
Alice: Well I'm a waitress, so, no. Um, I d-don't know, I mean I put it on my resume but I've never really noticed that people take an interest in it.
Alice has worked in restaurants for a while now. She met her now-husband when they were both working at McDonald’s. She was 23...and got pregnant. She kept working overnight shifts for the extra dollar an hour until just before the baby came. But money was still tight.
Alice: When we first got together we got into trouble with the credit cards, because my husband has a little bit of a, well, he has a gambling problem. So, he um, once we finally got one of the credit cards paid down, he actually shot it back up and spent about fourteen hundred dollars on an online poker game.
AS: Did you know he was gambling? When he was running up that—
Alice: I knew he had, um, I knew he had an issue with addiction. He's actually a recovering drug addict— and he just um, he has a very addictive personality is what he calls it. Uh, he hasn't done any hard drugs in a while but, he um, yeah, he's always struggled with addiction and just, I don't know, common sense.
AS: Common sense you said?
AS: You said that with a laugh, do—
AS: I mean, ah, does it make you angry and also laugh, or—
Alice: Um, yes, I mean, I married him so obviously I'm not too upset about it. But there are times when I kinda just want to throttle him. Which is normal I guess for any relationship.
Alice and her husband now work at a family-owned restaurant where she waits tables and he’s a cook. But it’s seasonal work that ends when it gets cold. When I talked to her last winter, neither of them were working.
Alice: The restaurant shuts down completely. So.
AS: What do you do for money during the winter?
A: Uh, we go on unemployment. But I personally, last year, I went and I did quite a bit of lifting and then what's called boosting where you sell the stuff that you lifted and that really helped, that pretty much paid for Christmas and our car payment and all that so.
AS: What kinds of stuff do you sell?
Alice: Um, being a young female it's easy for me to steal makeup, so I will sell high-end makeup, people really like, like the Naked palettes from Urban Decay, and you'll sell it for, you know, ten to fifteen dollars off and, I mean, you didn't pay for it in the first place so that's still like forty bucks in your pocket.
AS: And when you say it paid for Christmas last year, about how much money did you make by selling stuff you'd stolen?
Alice: I think...I know over a three month period I made about twelve hundred dollars, so like I don't know 300 bucks a month? And I'm not even really boosting anymore, because I'm just trying to be more cautious. The other part of is um, we're down to one vehicle, so anywhere I go, my husband is usually with me, and that makes it much harder. And I don't, he doesn't actually know that I lift.
AS: He doesn't know.
Alice: Um, well, I say that, but I think it's more that he's never brought it up. I mean, you can't live with someone and have someone bring home a whole bunch of new stuff and you know how much money's in the bank account so it can't be coming from there. And, I mean, I'm putting food on the table so, he's not really complaining.
AS: Why haven't you told him?
Alice: Because I don't want him to tell me to stop. If I bring it up it might um, come to a head, and he'll, he's going to make me choose, and I mean, I, I would choose my family if he made me choose but I don't want to have to.
AS: Why don't you want to stop?
Alice: I don't want to be on food stamps or uh, government assistance and this is my way of feeding my family when money gets tight.
AS: Why don't you want to enroll in food stamps if you qualify?
Alice: Uh, because even though it was, ten, eleven, ten years ago that my mom and dad went on food stamps they only got off it about three years ago, and that was after my dad got a pretty big raise. So I mean it just—watching them struggle and it, it just, I don't know, I just, it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, and I don't want to go there if I don't have to. I mean, I'm on unemployment right now. So it's not like I'm against government assistance, and I know that food stamps is there for people who need it because we pay our taxes and that's how it works, but, I'm just not, I don't want to get tangled up in it.
Coming up, Alice talks about finding a community of other shoplifters online.
Alice: It just sort of opened up a whole new world of possibilities, you know, other people are getting away with this stuff, so you know, if I keep working at it, maybe I can pull off thousand-dollar hauls.
AS: Have you ever done a thousand-dollar haul?
Alice: I think my best was $2300. But that was an entire day and two malls.
The Death, Sex & Money team is hitting the road again. On October 4th, we're going to do a live show in Los Angeles. Along with my guests Niecy Nash and Alia Shawkat, we’re going to tackle some of the 20s life advice questions we’ve been asking you to send in.
How do you keep feeling inspired as you get older?
When should I keep receipts? How should I organize them?
How do I stop worrying about things I cannot control?
Is it normal to feel this way? Is it a normal thing for a 23 year old to not know?
I hear your thirties are better.
If you will be near southern California on October 4, come out and join us! Tickets are on sale now at werkitfestival.com, and that’s “werk” spelled w-e-r-k.
I also have some news for you about Lawrence Bartley, the Sing Sing inmate whose episode we recently re-aired for you. We've learned that Lawrence was denied parole. He’ll be eligible to reapply next year.
Lawrence’s wife Ronnine told me she and Lawrence have appreciated hearing from listeners. We’ve passed on your messages for him that you sent to us, including one from a listener named Ken. He’s a librarian and wrote in to volunteer to be Lawrence’s “personal librarian.” “I thought he might appreciate a guide,” Ken wrote, since Lawrence went into prison before there was an internet, and has never been online. Ronnine says Ken and Lawrence are now in touch weekly.
On the next episode…we revisit our conversation with Ellen Burstyn. I talked to her three years ago now—but her self-care tips are as relevant as ever:
ELLEN BURSTYN: I have what I called should-less days. Today is a day where there’s nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it’s nap in the afternoon or watch TV, and eat ice cream, I get to do it.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Alice: I honestly thought it was a very rare thing. But the more I'm on Tumblr, the more I realize that people do it all the time.
We first learned about Alice through Tumblr. There’s an active community of shoplifters there, who regularly post pictures of what they call their “hauls.” Alice says when she discovered this Tumblr community, she was hooked.
Alice: I was pretty excited, actually, I was um, I spent I don't know like days just pouring over the different blogs and um, marveling at some of the hauls that people would pull off, they were just massive and I was, at the time I was still lifting you know, two or three teen- things at once, and people were coming home with uh thousands of dollars worth of stuff, and I was just kind of blown away.
AS: And you said excited?
Alice: Yes. I think it was almost validating, just knowing that I wasn't the only one out there doing it. It felt like I had people I could talk to about it, because it is such a huge part of my life and to have people that I could just talk about it like it was normal...that felt great.
AS: I have to say when I was looking at, at your Tumblr and then clicking through and looking at other people's Tumblrs, there's something about it that I find really sad? Like disturbing? Did, did that—because it's sort of, it's like um, celebrating something that's just, just kind of, on its face it's, you know you're taught not to steal as a kid.
AS: And that it's wrong. Did you feel any of that? Kind of—those mixed feelings?
Alice: Um, because I had been lifting for a while before I found the Tumblr, I um, I don't think I felt that way, but I definitely know what you're talking about because they have other segments of Tumblr that are glorifying drugs or you know, hurting yourself or um, having anorexia, and that kind of stuff really turns my stomach. So that, I definitely know the feeling that you're talking about.
AS: But for you, you don't feel that when you're looking at the lifting blogs.
AS: But, and you felt inspired.
AS: When you think about your online persona and what you, what you brag about like, you don't—you don't talk much about going to the grocery store and shoplifting food. Is it, is there sort of a performance element to, to those blogs?
Alice: Definitely, yeah. I mean the point of posting on a blog is for people to like it and reblog it, I mean nobody really wants to see my grocery haul of three blocks of cheese and an avocado.
AS: Uh huh. Do you steal things when your daughter is with you?
Alice: To be honest I used to, uh, when she was really little and it was kind of awesome because her diaper bag was so big I could just fill it up and then cover all the food with diapers. And no one is going to go digging through my diaper bag. And you also look a lot more innocent when you have a child, and I realize this sounds terrible, I'm sorry. But after she really started being aware of what I was doing, I stopped and I don't do it anymore.
AS: So, it was when you thought she might figure out what you were doing, be able to—
AS: —watch you.
AS: Why? Like wh-tell me about that line, like what what was, why did you decide that, that you didn't want her to know what you were doing?
Alice: Um... well that's a funny question. Because I was going to say I don't want her to grow up thinking it's okay, but obviously I think it's okay. Um, I guess I don't want her doing something that's obviously dangerous. And I mean if she did start lifting, I think we could have an open conversation about it but, I don't ever see her like being a tag team. I don't really want that for her.
AS: Do you feel, um—do you feel like you're going to be able to give your daughter a better life than the one that you grew up in?
Alice: That's the goal. I... yes? But I mean I try not to think too much about the future so I'm just worried about keeping her butt warm and her tummy full right now. I really do want to have a better life for her and I think um, I think we're going to be able to do it. Just because my husband and I are both hard workers, so.
AS: So the last time we talked it was late last year. How did it go getting through the winter?
Alice: It was rough.
This is Alice, just this month. I called her back, to check in.
Alice: And that's actually what prompted me to tell my husband that I started lift—er, that I had, um, been shoplifting.
Alice: Um, yeah. We got to a point where it was coming down to, do we pay rent, buy groceries, or pay the gas bill. And finally just out of frustration I told him, “I can get us an extra $100 if you give me a week,” and I told him what I did, and he was like, “Oh...oh! OK!” and he was just completely fine with it.
And then, after it was out in the open with her husband, Alice got caught. She says she got “cocky.”
Alice: We were planning on going on a short trip for our honeymoon, and I wanted to get a, like, just something cute to wear. So I went into Nordstrom Rack and, um, I- I- thinking back now, there were a number of times that, like, I was clearly being watched, I was clearly—they were suspicious. But I, you know, put some clothes in my purse, and I left, and then they pretty much chased me down, it was like this large, hulking guy. And I had actually gone into another store and he walked up to me and said, uh, “Ma’am, I need that dress you put in your purse.” And I was like, like I froze.
Alice didn’t steal enough for them to call the police. But she says she's banned now from all Nordstrom stores, and they fined her —a fine she says she didn’t pay. After that happened, she got more cautious. But is back to stealing things to sell them. She’s trying to save up $3000 to pay for a move to Florida this November. Her husband got a full-time cooking job there at a hotel, with benefits. She’s expecting to find work there, too.
Alice: Since I'm a waitress and a lot of Florida is just like, is service based industries, I can find a job pretty much anywhere.
AS: And when you think about what you hope your life looks like in Florida, what do you picture? How do you hope it works?
Alice: Ooh. Well, eventually I would like to just be a stay at home mom. Really honestly. But even if we could just both get 40 hour a week jobs with paid time off and benefits, like just the most boring average job you can think of.
AS: Do you hope you don’t have to shoplift, or do you see it as if you need to do it, you’ll do what you need to do?
Alice: Well it’s—it’s, that’s how I’ve always felt about it, is just pretty much do what you need to do, but I would like to not have to. But yeah. But once we get to Florida it would—it would be nice not to—to be able to start fresh, and not to have to patch these holes in our income by shoplifting.
That’s a woman we’re calling Alice.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, CA. The team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Thanks also to Destry Sibley for her help on this episode, and to Tasbeeh Herwees, who wrote about shoplifting blogs for Good Magazine and introduced us to some people in that community. There’s a link to her piece at deathsexmoney.org.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney.
And come see us October 4th in Los Angeles. Tickets at WerkItfestival - that’s w-e-r-k - .com.
And there’s one more thing Alice wanted to make clear:
Alice: I'm not trying to promote this. Like I'm not saying, oh, it's super easy, everybody go out and steal from your local Walmart and smash capitalism, that is, that's not what I'm about. I just see it as a, a means to an end.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.