Volume 31, Number 1

Scan the Onion

Mickey J. Corrigan

It’s a classic grift, but they make it so easy for people. Even straights can pull it off. In fact, that’s who usually does. The kids are bad, but the upstanding rich people are the worst. The banana trick. The pass around. The cover up. Sweethearting, tag switching. These folks do it all. And when you approach and accuse, they go nuts. A mistake. An oversight. A machine error. Who are you to accuse me of petty theft? I’m calling my attorney!

This is how it went down. So they never got in trouble. But eventually I did, and I ended up out of a job. Again.

The job was Loss Prevention Officer for Maxwell’s Much Reduced. I’d applied online, and since the company was going through a management adjustment that was more of a fraud tsunami, I snuck past HR. I could walk, I could talk, I was willing to work for minimized minimum wage? You may start tomorrow, young lady. I worked the school shift so I could avoid paying aftercare fees for my kid.

I liked the work and my peers, miscreants from Dusky Beach and the surrounds. We patrolled the aisles in our civvies, strolling about while looking for shoplifters and free-snackers. Whenever we spied someone standing by the candy bin and chomping on handfuls or stuffing a bag of dog food under a raincoat, we escorted that bad boy or girl to the back rooms. There in Loss Prevention Central, we waterboarded and fingernail-pulled until they promised not to ever shop at Maxwell’s again.

Despite our insistent threats, we never called in Florida’s finest. The local cops had a lot more important meat on their plates. The town kids were all on prescription meds, and so were their parents. Overdosing was in, and heroin was back. The town overlords were in an uproar, drug addicts being bad for the beach tourist industry. Too much affiliated violent crime. Rich people were getting robbed by their dealers. Other rich people were the dealers. The DBPD had their arrest plates full. So we had our sadistic fun in Loss Prevention, then let the petty people go free.

It was good for a while. Unfortunately, loss prevention technology progressed and soon enough everything changed.

One busy Sunday, New Management installed three shiny self-checkout machines. The next day, they fired half the cashiers.

Rex Purlough pulled me aside when I arrived for my shift at 9. “Francine’s gone. So is Dekalb. And TJ fainted when they told him this was his last week.”

Purlough’s mouth kept shifting, and his wispy white mustache flickered. Was he crying?

“Oh no,” I said lamely. “Francine has four grandkids to feed. And who’ll hire TJ? He’s pushing 80.”

Purlough nodded, blinking rapidly. “Management should die.”

I didn’t agree, but I didn’t disagree either.

The atmosphere at work worsened until it lingered at pre-hurricane intensity. Everyone was on edge. We felt really sore. Loyal workers who needed the paycheck got canned, replaced by dumb machines? Machines so dumb our customers could rip off items at checkout and not get caught? Well, New Management deserved the losses, we all agreed. So screw them.

We sat back and let it happen. Why should we help the company when they were so heartless, so stupid? Besides, when you stopped customers to point out they’d scanned one onion but had stuffed ten additional pounds in a shopping bag, they would put on the offended act and lie to your face. Scream in your face. So we let it go unless they smuggled out an expensive item from, say, the electronics department. But few did. Mostly they stole a nice cut of steak, a carton of bottled water or that second box of fragrance-free detergent.

After a few months, New Management noticed the store was losing money. Lots of money. The spotlight shone hard on us in Loss Prevention. To the pointy heads, it looked like we weren’t doing our jobs.

We weren’t. But still, we wanted to keep them. I had a kid to feed. Many of us did.

The Chief Loss Prevention Officer called a meeting. “Okay, everyone, thanks for coming down,” he said in a loud voice meant to shut us up.

The grumbles and moans rose up in the stuffy break room. It smelled like greasy fries and burnt coffee. Here it was, after 9 on a Friday night, and we were sitting around the lunch table or leaning against the scuffed walls. Nobody was happy so the griping was pitched.

CLPO Howe raised one meaty hand. Dressed in full gear, gun holster prominent on one wide hip, mud brown security uniform properly creased, he tripped his power with obvious enjoyment. “Quiet down, folks. There are new rules jes’ come down from Management. We got increases in our external shrinkage.” This was Loss P lingo for shoplifted items. “We got to crack down and prevent losses at the self-checkout. So, from now on, for each shift, two a’ youse will be assigned checkout machine duty. This means one in surveillance in Loss P Central, one in the self-checkout aisle.”

Purlough looked at me with an ironic smile. Everyone loved surveillance duty. But winning that shift had always been impossible because top dogs like Howe sat on their fat butts in front of the screens and sent us peons out to appraise and apprehend.

“This is what y’all gonna watch out for. One: the banana trick.” This involved scanning a cheap item like a bunch of bananas in place of a more expensive one of a similar weight, like maybe a bottle of hi-test vitamins. “Two: the Pass Around.” Loss P for pretending to scan while you slip an item into the take-home bag. “Numero three is the Cover-up.” Hiding items on the bottom shelf of the shopping cart or buried under four or five full bags, then rolling out without scanning. “And fourth, eyes out for the Switcheroo.” Covering the sticker on a higher cost item with one from a lower cost product, such as placing a pound of burger meat price tag on a big fat T-bone steak.

Howe shifted his bulk. “Remember, people, petty theft is a misdemeanor. We have them on camera. We can make their lives miserable. A misdemeanor shows up on background checks and can influence where they rent homes or get employment in the future. So it’s serious.”

Tell me about it. I had my own limitations on such matters due to past indiscretions.

CLPO Howe continued. “Everybody who shops here regular knows not to trigger the unexpected item alert. The thieves got wise, people, they got cagey. So you can’t catch ‘em that way. Got to get ‘em out front, after the fact. Do a product count, make ‘em cringe.” He looked around at the motley crew before him. “Got it?”

We got it, man. And yes, we could do what he wanted. But we all knew the truth: it was pointless because nobody would go to jail. The thieves would deny. Deny, deny, deny. And even we knew the bottom line: you could never prove intent.

What a waste.

Purlough frowned at me. I must have been muttering under my breath. Stealing onions seemed like lightweight nonsense to me anyway. Firing a good worker in his late 70s, now that was serious. The way I saw it.

The meeting ended. The kid was with a babysitter with an hourly wage higher than mine, so I hightailed it home.


The following Monday morning, I was on self-checkout duty with Howe backing me up in Loss P Central. Purlough was trolling the aisles in civvies. I was dressed in full uniform, but not armed. New Management wasn’t taking it that far. Not yet anyway.

I stared at the checkout machines, seeing nothing. My mind wandered down to the beach, where the late spring sun was shining and happy people playing hooky were splashing in the warm salt water. Then I floated over to Marley’s, where my favorite Irish jug band was due on stage later, when Guinness drafts were three for one for happy hour.

Suddenly my phone buzzed. A text from Chief Loss Prevention Officer Howe: Chck lady w/hippie dress possible Cover Up.

I sighed. On it chief.

She didn’t look the type, but they never did. I’d stopped men with silk ties and pressed Oxford shirts, Rolexes on their tanned wrists. I’d questioned pampered women with Gucci bags and thousands of dollars of plastic surgery. I’d tried to reason with people chauffeured to the store from multi-million dollar mansions on the water.

Everyone wanted a free ride. And the store was offering it to them. Who wouldn’t take them up on it?

Forcing my lips into a menacing sneer, I followed the middle-aged woman in the mauve tie-dye skirt out of the store.

The day was hot and bright. Quick little sparrows swooped from the overhang above the entrance where they liked to build their nests in the spring.

Ducking, I popped on my shades and hurried across the asphalt lot. I caught up to her when she stopped wheeling her cart by the side door of a tangerine minibus. It had a lot of bumper stickers for liberal views and ideals like world peace. One caught my eye: If a man speaks in a forest without a woman to hear him, is he still wrong?

That made me laugh. I liked her attitude.

Before she could start unloading her cart, however, I did my job. I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but Loss Prevention has asked that I compare your receipt to your purchased items for a possible error at the self-checkout.”

She turned to me with a warm smile. “Oh, wow. Okay.” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “Maybe I made a mistake while I was ringing things up. I’m such an airhead sometimes.”

She didn’t look like an airhead. Her bumper stickers did not make her look like an airhead. The sharpness in her eyes made her appear to be an intelligent person. The hippie garb, well, those Woodstock people were before my time. I didn’t understand decades of commitment to a goofy style.

She handed me the receipt, and we tallied her purchases, lining up the items on the floor of her van. Organic produce. Vegan cheese. Bacon-wrapped shrimp and mini-hotdog appetizers. A chocolate cake. Tissues, toilet paper. Paper plates and napkins with Happy Birthday! on them. Coconut shampoo. Padded old-man socks. Gardening gloves. Antihistamine medication. Craft beer. Six bottles of fifty-dollar Pinot with a ring-up for one bottle of a cheap California blend.

“Whoops,” she said with a who-me shrug.

But when I asked her to follow me back to the store, that we needed to have a chat with the Chief Loss Prevention Officer, her simpleton manner dropped away and her back stiffened. Eyes iced over. She scowled and got up in my face. “I have no moral issue with stealing from a store that forces me to do their work for them,” she seethed. “Have you noticed? I am doing the cashier’s job as unpaid labor every time I come in here. Your company is charging me to work for them!

Karl Marx predicted this. He said there would be a rising up of the proletariat if there was enough class consciousness. And old Marx was right; it was happening. Even the elite felt it was their right to steal from The Man.

Woodstock revisited.

Her stick-it-to-the-man entitlement rubbed me the wrong way. I have my faults, but moral superiority isn’t one of them. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’ll have to pay for the wine,” I said.

Grimacing, she reached in her fringed suede bag and pulled out a small black wallet.

There was a thumping sound, and she slumped at my feet.

Purlough ran up. “Are you okay?” he said to me, huffing. We looked down together at the woman lying on the asphalt. “Oh my god, is she…?”

She sat up, raising a hand to the side of her head where a pink lump had sprouted. It appeared to be growing larger and redder every second. “You have no right! I’m calling my attorney.”

Purlough had thrown a large onion. His aim was perfect.

His face was scarlet. “I thought she was pulling a gun on you. Concealed carry,” he explained. His mouth twitched.

Oh no. Was he crying?

I told the hippie woman, “Get in your car and go right now, and we won’t press charges over your theft of the wine.”

She left the food on the floor of her flashback vehicle and slammed the side door, marching around to the driver’s side. Purlough and I moved to the median strip. After she backed out, she rolled down her window. Her face was distorted now, the lump above her ear a reddish-blue. “I didn’t do anything wrong. There were no victims, nobody was hurt except a corporation. A greedy entity that fired my dad just before his 80th birthday. The wine was for his party. You people are the offenders, not me.”

“TJ’s daughter,” Purlough said as she drove off.


We walked back inside the store. I was sweating. The stiff cotton uniform was too heavy for Florida, much too hot. Well, soon enough I wouldn’t have to wear it anymore. There were cameras in the parking lot. Video surveillance. Evidence of me allowing for significant external shrinkage.

Purlough accompanied me to Loss Prevention Central. After a minimum of waterboarding and fingernail-pulling, I admitted I’d let her go. I said she deserved the wine she’d stolen because she was TJ’s family.

“She’s a thief and a liar,” I told CLPO Howe, who was snarling at me. An angry pit bull ready to attack. “But she’s right. You people are exploitative.”

I was on the side of the righteous, for once. Now I’m on the side of the unemployed. And here I sit, in a front row seat at Marley’s Tavern, sunburned after a leisurely morning spent wading the warm waters of Dusky Beach. I’m ready to do some serious damage to my first unemployment check. Which will not, for sure, be my last.