Shoplifting, Then and Now

Years ago, as a teenager who had just buried her mother, I shoplifted and got caught. So I take very personally the news that Macy's Manhattan store is enforcing a type of retail frontier justice for shoplifters, in a room equipped with handcuffs, chain-link holding cells and private security guards.

Apparently, the company is in the forefront of a movement to collect restitution immediately, which in New York state can be up to five times the amount of the stolen item, and to alleviate the burden of pushing alleged shoplifters through the justice system.

If this is the harbinger of a trend that will affect minors as well as adults nationwide, I believe that Macy's and other stores considering similar measures could benefit as much as I did from my youthful experience. To this day, I believe that the way Lord & Taylor department store dealt with me in 1963 made the difference between my practicing self-destruction and living a fulfilling life.

A Jersey girl, I stayed less with my father and more with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan after my mother's brain tumor extinguished her life at age 52. I was angry. When I wasn't in school, I ate too much sugar and wandered around New York City.

Late one Saturday morning, I walked from the mid-town apartment to Lord and Taylor on Fifth Avenue. Stealing was the last thing on my mind; I was numb as usual. The black string bikini I fingered on the first floor counter must have been a size 2 -- small enough to fit my hand -- and on a whim, I put it in my purse and left the store.

Even today, I recall the clamp of the warm hand on my arm as soon as the front door shut behind me. I remember the woman's calm, low voice.

"Keep walking, honey," she said. "Don't worry. I'm a house detective and I saw what you did. We're going around the block to the back of the store. Everything will be fine."

As if she knew I might crumble, the detective moved to the outside of the sidewalk, tightened her left arm around me and cradled my right elbow with her right hand. Quietly, she urged me to keep breathing and walking. I felt as if I'd gone blind.

Once upstairs in the rear of the building, she left me alone in a small room with an ordinary wooden table and a few chairs. A man and a different woman entered at some point and although I no longer recall how the bathing suit left my purse and ended up in the center of the table, I can picture it there. We discussed why I did it (I didn't know) and what they would do about it. They said they had checked with juvenile authorities and confirmed that I had no criminal record.

"We're busy working, so you'll have to wait around while we decide whether to press charges," said the man.

And that's what they did. The hours cycled as I sat alone in the small, windowless room with a water cooler and a paper cup. I mostly cried and talked to myself. Occasionally, someone looked in, but mostly I was alone with fears of my father throwing me against a wall.

Finally, at the end of the day, the team re-entered.

"We've decided not to call the police," said the man. "But there is a stipulation -- you are never to set foot in our store again. We work hard and are proud of our store. We don't like people like you. Even if you have a million dollars, we don't want your money. Do you understand?"

Somehow, this verbal shock treatment did the trick. It replayed in daydreams and nightmares. I thought of myself as a good kid; Lord and Taylor considered me a criminal. Somehow that reality stung me into confronting the person my mother intended me to be, and who I would become if I kept stealing. Had I been handcuffed to a table or thrown in a cage for hours, been scared into signing a confession without a lawyer or cop or judge, I believe I might have hurled myself under a subway that night rather than face my violent father.

Years later, I wrote a letter to the store to express gratitude and ask if first-time shoplifting minors in particular were still treated with the same wisdom. According to Lord and Taylor public relations, the store doesn't want anyone to know whether it has a version of Macy's "Room 140," with its long steel bench bolted to the linoleum floor and a dozen handcuffs hanging from chains attached to the bench.

We still have legal rights in America. Whether guilty or innocent, we are still entitled to legal representation before questioning, protection against coercion to sign confessions, and officers who are professionally trained and monitored.

Macy's and its fellow retailers are entitled to recoup every dollar lost through theft. Waiting for due process of the legitimate legal system seems a small price to pay to save even one screwed-up teenager.

Abramson is a San Francisco-based journalist and a contributing editor of Pacific News Service.

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