Volume 35, Number 2

Steal This Book

Timothy Herrick

Everybody knew Steal This Book. No war left to protest, but the radio still played love songs we first heard in our fading childhood. Revolution always makes the most sense to the young.

Abbie’s shoplifting secret was nonchalance. Just be cool. Behave like a normal shopper and you’ll never get caught.

My brothers fished for perch at the Oradell reservoir. The best lures were orange with yellow stripes, tiny mirrors and bright feathers, multiple hooks. We stole them from Two Guys in Hackensack.

Michael and I pretended to be interested in the rods and reels while, mid-aisle, Kenneth lingered over bins of tackle. When he walked by us, we followed, leaving together unhurried.

Next time at Two Guys I wandered in the toy section. An open bag of plastic astronauts. Nonchalance came naturally.

The adult male towered beneath fluorescent glare. What is in your pocket? The badge on his belt was unmistakably metal.

He escorted me through doors I never saw before, shockingly brusque exit from familiar retail into a dingy office. He ordered me to sit then asked who I was with and what was my mother’s name. He spoke into a microphone, and I heard the distant storewide intercom interrupt all shoppers.

The other plainclothes guard had his own perp. A grown man, my father’s age, attempted theft of cologne. His name was not on file, but his son’s was. I’ll talk to him, officer, he assured, like father to father. That will do a lot of good… then laughed in his face.

Weekly confessions were mandatory at Our Lady of the Visitation; a priest being informed of my sin satisfied my mother. Only one ordained could be trusted knowing the shame I made my family share.

My father atypically did not lose his temper. He reminded me that I had taken the Cub Scout oath which forbade stealing. My punishment was not being allowed to play with my Football card collection for a month.

Or was that a punishment for not keeping my room clean and he smacked me again instead? The night my team lost the Super Bowl my pet box turtle died. He lived in a turtle pen—a plastic kiddie pool half-filled with garden store soil, ivy from the yard, hand-painted rocks and a Blessed Mother figurine—that I made to earn a merit badge. I named him Tank.

After Tank’s death, my interest in football or athletic cards of any kind evaporated, eventually for all of scouting too, inevitable but gradual and each turning point seemingly random.

Bill Smith’s eyes flickered like lapis lazuli. He shoplifted every opportunity. We’d come out of Simple Simon and he’d pull Twinkies and Hershey Bars and cans of Dr. Pepper from his army surplus jacket whose pockets were designed to carry hand grenades.

We’d get high and hang out at Paramus Park. One time we went to the unattended sunglass counter at A&S. Eyewear displayed on counter-top carousels next to matching oval mirrors. Bill looked around, then looked at the selection. He put on a pair and studied his reflection. With an unnoticeable gesture, he snapped off the dangling price tag. Then we walked away. Easy, everything’s still the same, except Bill saw through silver-mirrored aviators.

New malls—enclosed and strip—superstores, big-box—fashion centers, family centers—every sales concept—the town where 17 & 4 intersected had blossomed into an ultimate retail destination, less than an hour’s drive for millions. Paramus was world famous for its shopping—consumerism epitomized—no American aspiration as resilient or widespread.

On days when blizzards shut down other school systems, teachers explained how Paramus led the county in rapid snow removal. The stores funded an unmatched fleet of plows, which meant lower property taxes and safer roads. Self-interest saves our community. Without shoppers, we’re nothing.

Other outcomes went unmentioned. Shoplifting was now another teen rite-of-passage, as compulsory as drinking Southern Comfort until you vomited.

More stores meant more to steal, and enforcement responded by no longer barring holes. If caught, police were called, and you were arrested no matter how minor the merchandise. Worse than any ticket, your parents had to post bail. County judges imposed maximum sentences. Everyone you knew, knew somebody who knew somebody locked up in Rahway for shoplifting in Paramus.

My Two Guys bust was enough for me. Unlike Bill Smith anyone could see when my hands moved. Except at the Stop & Shop where I worked as a cashier.

This supermarket was on Route 4, between Three Brothers from Italy Pizza and an E. J. Korvette that became a Caldor. Almost a decade before the first price scanners—back then a worker was responsible for ringing up on a full-metal register the price of each product—customers watched closely to make sure the price manually entered on the machine matched the one on the label or advertised in the weekly circular.

On the first of every month, black families from Paterson came to the Paramus Stop & Shop. Always a mother with children—she was tired and they were bratty, and she had to pay attention to me while disciplining them. She’d pay with food stamps, which came in booklets like raffle tickets and looked like Monopoly money. These families came in other times, but the first of the month seemed they all came at once.

Not only them, but mostly them, I would not ring up some items. Only enter one price but push two items down the conveyer belt. The most expensive—roasts and ribs and steaks—went by un-rung. They never said a word, no smile or wink or direct eye contact. Nonchalance would never be this pure again.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman was first published in 1971 by Grove Press.