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Mothers, Friends, and Outcasts: A Tale of Shoplifting in the '90s

In high school, you probably knew a girl like Julie K. The girl whose name, when uttered in company that didn't include her, sounded like an insult. The girl who no one liked and who no one could stop talking about. The token boyfriend-stealer, the two-faced backstabber, the root of all rumors-- both as subject and generator.

For a spell, this girl was my sister's best friend. Because of this unique and unlikely relationship, I had a limited-access, backstage pass to Julie K.'s sensational life. And so I ascertained--among other juicy tidbits--that Julie K.'s mother could be added to the list of people who didn't like Julie K.

Julie K.'s mother was a combative loudmouth. A shit-talker who hid out in the basement playing online poker. She was never in a good mood, except for when she was in a really good mood. The mother clearly preferred the middle sister, Debbie, to Julie. And over Debbie she preferred Katie—the youngest sibling, who was just adorable and too-young-to-have-yet-disappointed. There was also a car-oriented older brother who was never around, but point being: if Julie's mom were Sophie from Sophie's Choice, she would've chosen little Katie, hands down. Or maybe she would've had them all murdered.

Now that I'm an adult, I know that Julie K.'s mother was likely working with a gambling addiction and probably some other variety of mental illness. But at the time, what else could we have called Julie K.'s mom but a complete and utter bitch? She intimidated the shit out of me. And yet, my sister took Julie K. and all of her mom-baggage under her non-judgmental wing. Both my sister and I have inherited, perhaps from our kind, loving mother, the ability to get along with anyone, to de-activate the bitch impulse in any infamously unlikeable girl. This is more true of my sister, having previously befriended Sandy E.-- who would hit up our fridge and crash our house with her wily little brother more freely than a well-parented child should have, and Sherry D.—a spindly little sprite whose asshole older brother made her mean by association.

What qualities in my sister made her so attractive to stormy girls? Did they balance out her goodness? A grounded and loyal girl by nature, was she thrilled by the wildness these girls offered, like beer at an underage party? Did being a foil offer a delicious sort of tension? The bad girls were drawn to my sister who, like me, was never particularly interested in staging drama of her own, leaving plenty of room for others to act out theirs.

My sister's edgy friends became my friends, too. I wouldn't have had the skill to befriend them if my sister hadn't already. I would've hung back in fear, flirting with camaraderie only if I felt safe. And once they were already in my house, eating my mom's chocolate banana cake and laughing at my weirdo comedy-dance routines, I guess then I knew it was safe.

Even though the world was sort of Julie K.'s enemy, or maybe because the world was her enemy, being on her good-side felt sort of special, like knowing a really scandalous secret. Julie was pure bitch-material, but she was interesting, fun to be around. She talked lots of shit, and there was always something going down, some girl who wanted to kick her ass, or some guy who deserved her revenge in a monstrous way. She liked us. She needed us. And maybe we needed her, too. For contrast, for balance.

Perhaps my associative friendship with Julie K. dismayed my two best friends, Melanie and Abby, who hated Julie K, as one did. Maybe she'd made out with Abby's ex-boyfriend? Or maybe she teased Melanie's little brother? Perhaps she teased Melanie's little brother while making out with Abby's ex-boyfriend? Whatever it was, my sister and I were above it. Julie K. was nice to me. And when she agreed to be my shoplifting partner, I liked her even more.

Shoplifting consumed me my sophomore year of high school. It began at Schiller's Hallmark at the mall, where both my sister and I worked with a gaggle of friendly, responsible, and completely corrupt Greek Orthodox girls. At Hallmark, shoplifting after closing was a long-standing tradition. At 9 p.m. we'd rattle down the aluminum security gate, turn the Lite FM station to B96, count the cash from the registers (which we never stole-- that would be criminal), and proceed to slip into our purses the occasional stuffed animal, porcelain figurine, or horrible Anne Geddes photo plaque: the naked newborns sleeping in giant, gnarled birds nests that were all the rage back in the day.

Stealing was exhilarating. I got addicted to getting away with it. And "everyone" was doing it. Except for my sister, who put angel figurines on layaway. She was so good she wouldn't even rat us out. After months of getting away with it at Hallmark, I began to venture out, jonesing for a more peak experience. I pocketed chokers and charm bracelets from Claire's Boutique, endless makeup from Walgreens, and my most inspired acquisition: a giant, hard-backed copy of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes from Waldenbooks. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. I was a good kid, not a troublemaker. I got along with my Mom. I even sometimes went to church willingly. But shoplifting was Secret Me, an expression of my inner badness long repressed by others' good opinion of me. Plus I was good at it: quiet, unsuspecting, adept at peeling barcodes off of CDs.

Plus plus-- and this is not something I thought of consciously as a 15 year old-- but stealing was an extremely satisfying fuck-you to capitalism, to the media. Like most girls my age, I was devouring YM, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle, pining with all my heart to look like the models in those magazines. To have the shit that they had. To possess the accessories required to be the right kind of girl. So yes, I knew it was wrong to steal. But who was I really hurting, the CEO of Walgreen's who was for-sure a rich a-wad who paid his teenage employees $3 an hour? An old white man who, undoubtedly, expected the female lot of said teenage employees to look cute while on the job? Fuck that guy!

Because of me, my best friends Melanie and Abby became thieves, too. (Add the word "influential" to my list of attributes.) They went to Kohl's at the mall and stole mounds of colorful thongs to wear to a St. Pat's dance. After they got caught, present-day Abby tells me, the cop referred to their loot as "wolfbait". (Gross.) Melanie even had to wait in jail for her mom to pick her up. WOW, I must have thought. NOTHING LIKE THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN TO ME.

While on break during my shift at Hallmark one afternoon, I spotted a bikini at Kohl's I had to have-- blue gingham with flirty white ruffles. It was $60, a good chunk of my minimum wage paycheck. But why buy it, when I could gank it? Screw you, CEO of Kohl's! Eff off, greedy powers-that-be! Sure, Melanie and Abby had just got busted there, BUT NOTHING LIKE THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN TO ME.

Julie K. was over that night, and when I told her about wanting to steal the bikini, she was 100 percent up for being my accomplice. Of course she was! My sister stayed silent during this conversation, which was annoying, but at least she didn't snitch.

The next day, Julie and I wandered into Kohl's after school. We headed for the Juniors section, too nervous to talk. There it was-- my beautiful bikini. I considered turning back. The store felt eerily vacant, as if it were after hours and someone forgot to turn off the lights. But Julie was piling her arm with Mickey Mouse t-shirts, and so I took the suit and thought to myself, What an adorable bikini, I think I'll try it on!

The dressing room felt like a meat locker with funhouse mirrors. My skin goosebumping all over, I shimmied the suit over my bra and panties, eager to get this part over with. Julie shuffled in the next booth, layering t-shirts beneath her hoodie. We left the dressing room without looking at each other, each of us padded with guilt and nervous as hell.

And we were right to be. Because the moment we stepped out of Kohl's and into the mall, fifty* security guards sprung from the walls like Ninjas. (*It was probably actually three.) They descended upon us like they were ravenous pigeons and we were Cheetos. CAUGHT! The word shot through my brain, leaving a trail of panic but also, oddly enough, a feeling of relief. Of exhilaration. Because I already knew I would never shoplift again.

In the security office, Julie and I sat in metal chairs facing a desk where a security guard presided like Judge Judy, only buxom and bottle-blonde. She demanded we peel off the layers of clothing that would not only reveal the stolen clothes, but also the blackened shells of our morally vacant souls. Head lowered, eyes averted, I faced the wall as I denuded myself, thinking of my Mom. How would she not find out about this?

We placed the booty on Judge Judy's desk and returned to our chairs.

"So. You girls been bragging to your friends?" she said. "'Cause they ratted you out, you know."

For the first time, out of pure shock, I looked into her Wet N' Wild-lined eyes.

"What?" Blonde Judge Judy chuckled. "With friends like that, who needs enemies?" she said, as if she were terribly clever.

Besides my angelic sister, Melanie and Abby were the only other people who knew about our plan. The knowledge settled in me like the stomach flu, leaving me nauseous and chilled. Melanie and Abby, my best friends, would do anything to get Julie K. in trouble, even if it meant busting my ass?

I gaped at Julie, who looked completely unfazed. "Now give me your phone numbers," Judge Judy said, "BECAUSE I'M CALLING YOUR MOTHERS."

That's when some trap door in my chest dropped open. I'm sure I wanted to blubber, snivel, hyperventilate, but I probably hardened to save face. To look like I couldn't give two shits. "Have you stolen before?" the cop asked me. "Maybe like a pack of gum or something," I mumbled.

Some immeasurable amount of time later, Julie's mom entered wearing a long coat over her pajamas. She stole the show, freaking out on Julie so hard that even the security guards looked sheepish. Julie gave it right back, matching her mother's furious cacophony note for note. And though they were both passionate, flushed, ripe for Jerry Springer, there was a weariness to their interplay, like actors stuck in a nightmarish play. When my Mom entered the room behind Julie's mom, her presence felt solemn and heavy, as if she were attending my funeral. Quiet and bleeding, she was a wounded animal who retreated, hiding from me in the shadows of the forest, rubbing my face in the atrocity of my crime by not speaking to me, by not even looking in my direction. Who are you? She seemed to be saying. You are not my child. (I am a mother now. Sometimes I say nothing to my child, because if I open my mouth my words and tone might literally burn the skin off of her bones and set her hair on fire. So I get it, Mom.)

Because we were minors, no legal action was taken. But both Julie and I, to this day I suppose, are banned from the Kohl's at the Harlem and Irving Plaza. During the car ride home my Mom maintained her bitter silence. That night, through her closed bedroom door, I heard her crying. Have you ever heard your mother cry over you in what she thinks is privacy? My heart withered and turned to dust. I was the worst daughter in the history of everything.

I told Melanie and Abby about getting caught, but I don't remember if I told them I knew they ratted us out. I probably just didn't want it to be true. I didn't want to be mad at them. If I cut off my two best friends, no matter how ruthless they'd acted, who would I hang out with on the weekends? Besides, I assumed, they really wanted to bust Julie K. I was just a helpless bystander/shoplifter, right?

Of course my Mom started talking to me again, but never about the incident. The whole event was written, sealed up, and mailed to another planet. Time healed, as it does. Now, I can imagine being horrified at having to retrieve my sinful child from the mall security office. I would feel as if I'd done something terribly, irrevocably wrong (see previous post) in raising her for her to resort to shoplifting. Like what, does my child have a RECORD now???

The truth is, I was fifteen. I never thought about my Mom and Dad for a second while shoplifting-- it was all about adrenaline, and testing the limits of my own audacity, about being brave and joyously gliding beneath the radar. But remember when I asked who I was really hurting? It was my Mom. And for that I was, and am, endlessly sorry.

Julie K., however, never stopped shoplifting. She wasn't lucky enough to have a tender relationship with her Mom to keep her in check. My mom's reaction may have been quiet, but it was effective. Julie's mom's reaction was grist for the mill. For as long as high school lasted at least, so did Julie K.'s reputation.

Several months after the Kohl's incident, Julie K. was maced in the face by someone who felt compelled to mace her in the face. It happened after her shift at Taco Bell. Julie had shrieked so loudly—my sister told me-- that her mom heard her from inside their basement, several blocks away. Once again, her mom had gone to collect her mess of a daughter. I can imagine her bitching out Julie while also rinsing the mace from her eyes, caring for her. A beautiful image, in a way. But I wonder now, if Julie wasn't screaming-- this time from the Taco Bell-- would her mom have ever heard her at all?

1 Comment

Aug 24, 2021

This is so vividly told. I loved all the long descriptive sentences. Great work.

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