Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question: What pop culture items have you shoplifted?
“Shoplifters of the world /Unite and take over,” sings Morrissey in The Smiths’ “Shoplifters Of The World.” The song appears on Louder Than Bombs, the band’s 1987 compilation. Funnily enough, I hadn’t actually heard that song before I shoplifted a cassette copy of Louder Than Bombs in 1988. I was in high school, and a friend of mine and I would regularly skip lunch and go directly to Musicland in the mall near our school. Our mission: to rip shit off by stuffing it down our pants. He and I had begun stealing comic books from the Safeway in our neighborhood while we were in junior high, but moving up to mall shoplifting felt like, well, some sort of juvenile-delinquent graduation. Eventually I got nabbed, which put an end to my criminal career—but not before I absconded with dozens of cassettes, including Louder Than Bombs, which remains one of my favorite albums ever. Knowing I shoplifted “Shoplifters” only makes it sound that much sweeter.
I only stole from my siblings, and I think they probably knew, and likely just stole things back. I recall a lot of different cassettes being liberated from my oldest sister’s blue Subaru, particularly Love And Rockets and Bauhaus and stuff along those lines, which actually had a rather serious impact on my young mind. (An army jacket with the Love And Rockets logo painted on the back that I wore all through high school is still a source of embarrassment.) But I guess I’m happy I stole those things, and I should probably also mention that most of them were dubbed anyway, either recorded from the vinyl or just “borrowed” from my siblings’ friends. Back then, there was a record-industry slogan that said “Home taping is killing music,” which was like the “Napster is killing music” of its day, only one turned out to be slightly more true than the other.
I don’t know if I still have either of these things, but when I was 5 or 6—before, apparently, I understood personal property—I filched a few Disney-related souvenirs. One was from the local odds-and-ends store—a plastic figurine of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, perched on a rock. It’s totally possible my mom paid for it, but I definitely thought I was taking it. I don’t know why except I think my mother had probably vetoed yet another Ariel-related purchase. The second was a little more sinister—a children’s illustrated version of Aladdin, from my first-grade classroom. For several days thereafter, the teacher kept asking if one of us had taken home a copy and forgot to bring it back. I nodded and smiled through all of these meetings, and it was only much later that I realized the books were not free for the taking.
I’m in the same boat as Sonia, except when I stole My Grandma, The Witch from my first-grade library I knew it was against the rules. I can remember the extreme sense of relief I felt when I made it back to my own grandma’s house after school that day without getting pinched and how I hid the book from friends and family until about third grade. Twenty years later, I’m still hesitant to speak about it publicly for fear Mrs. Bridge will find out, but in my defense the book has made it through elementary, middle, and high school with me as well as undergrad and graduate school. So, it’s safe to say I did really enjoy the spellbinding storyline, and in first grade that’s a logical enough reason to think you deserve something.
Mine is pop culture related in the sense that sports are pop culture. I went to the last Cleveland Browns game at Municipal Stadium and took a seat. I suppose I should say that this move was totally sanctioned by my parents, who were there with my brother and me. My dad had even been rocking back and forth in his seat the whole game trying to get it out of the ground, only to have his plan thwarted by a massively drunk guy who ripped the seat out of the ground and threw it on the field when my dad stood up to cheer a play. The whole game sounded like a construction site, with everyone ripping anything out of the stadium that they could get their hands on, eventual auction be damned. When the game ended, my brother and I picked up our seats and headed for the doors. He got stopped by a security guard—and he was only 9 at the time, so that’s extra shitty–but I just put my head down and soldiered on out the door seat in hand. It sat in the back of my closet at my parents’ house for a while, but now has a place of honor on the Browns shrine in their Cleveland home.
I would hate to do or say anything that might seem like an endorsement of shoplifting, because it is not a victimless crime, and if there was a time in my life when I thought it was all right to swipe things like books and CDs, it’s because I was dead broke and needed them for the replenishment of my soul. That said, one fall day in 1989, while killing time in Covington, Louisiana—waiting for a girlfriend who was visiting family members who felt more comfortable without me on their property—I did visit the now-defunct Cumquat Bookstore and stuck a copy of Mark Beyer’s Agony in the inner pocket of my army surplus coat. I have been able to make peace with myself over it, because I’ve spent enough time in Covington, Louisiana to feel confident that no one else who might have been interested in paying money for Agony was likely to visit that store.
The idea of me being a successful thief is about as likely as Pee-Wee Herman being a rebel: The extent of my shoplifting history was a pack of gum, I think, although it could well have been Lifesavers. Whatever it was, though, I know I ended up feeling so guilty about it that I confessed, so I certainly never reached a point where I stole anything of the pop culture variety. The closest I came was receiving “hot” pop culture material, thanks to one of my friends going through a brief period where he loved to show off his skill at swiping comic books from various local supermarkets and drug stores, which is how I came to own a copy of the 50th—and final—issue of Spider-Woman. It was actually a really cool, dark issue, with the character not just dying but being completely wiped from existence (at least until they decided to backpedal and not only bring her back but make her a much more prominent member of the Marvel universe), but me being the squeaky-clean type that I was, I’m amazed that I was even able to rationalize accepting it when my friend gave it to me. A few years later, I ended up selling my entire comic book collection, and although I doubt if I actually breathed a sigh of relief that it was no longer in my possession, I’ve clearly never forgotten that I once harbored stolen goods. Jesus, I’m a terrible criminal.
One summer, my friends and I decided to go camping at Big Bend for a week. Now, that’s all the way across Texas from us in Houston, but it’s almost halfway to Los Angeles, and more importantly Disneyland. I kept half-joking that I wasn’t going to turn south at Fort Stockton, eventually my friend realized he knew people in L.A. we could stay with, and over lunch we decided to spend two days driving across the country so we could go to Disneyland instead. The problem was Disneyland tickets cost several plasma donations each. So we paid for one, then each individually used it to get our hands stamped for re-admittance on the way back out, at which point two of us could just claim we lost our ticket but show our hand stamps instead. Naturally I was the one who got stopped, but luckily I had the receipt from the ticket. After a traumatic few minutes waiting for a guard or something, they let me go, and our vacation began. The next two days a friend who works there gave us comp tickets, but stealing admission to a park in a city twice as far from home as we were supposed to be was an unforgettable thrill.