The Darker Side

I used to work at a grocery store. In fact, it was one of the busiest grocery stores in Finland, both in relation to customer numbers and the inevitable consequences (good and bad) of the diversity of our huge clientele. When I first started I found out that being a male employee at our store entailed a responsibility unmentioned in any contracts or application procedures. Since the store was situated at a junction of bus, train and commuter traffic, we were forced to witness many examples of our society's more disreputable outgrowth: drunks, brawlers, junkies and shoplifters. My first days at the job, in addition to learning the ropes, were full of bewilderment, mild fear and occasional amusement at the sheer number of these people, who came to the store in search for something to pocket before checking out. At times I also marvelled at the audacity and outright boldness that some of them conducted their "business" with. Since I grew up in a well-mannered family surrounding, shielded from the darker truths of our community, it came as a shock to see how people could so disrespect the law in their shoplifting galore. When I told of my experiences to my mother, she, ever the firm believer in inherent goodness within every person, would say that they steal out of necessity; to survive. Considering that most of the stuff shoplifters take from stores is alcohol and expensive industrial products, I was either forced to change my perceptions on what really is necessary to people or come to terms with the fact that Mother was wrong. After months of work at the store, I firmly believed in the latter.

Shoplifters are usually harmless. When you apprehend them after the check-out, they usually accept the fact that they've been caught. Since we had many employees at our store, all who had seen and dealt with shoplifters a gazillion times before, most of the culprits understood that the only thing they'd gain from fighting back is a bigger fine. But then there were those with the moral fibre of a monkey wrench, those shot up with enough drugs to sedate a blue whale and those who'd just come along looking for a wrestling match. They didn't care about the fine, because when worse comes to worse, they'd be jailed for having too many unpaid fines, and thus they'd get a free meal and lodging at the police station.

I hated getting into fights and tried to avoid them by either talking to the brawler rationally (sometimes it worked, often it didn't) or by moving behind them and sealing off a possible escape route while the other employees, with more muscle than brain, would try to physically calm the suspect. The brawlers were the guys you had to watch out for, because even when caught they could be potentially dangerous, owing to the fact that they'd have blood-coated syringes in their coat pockets just waiting to poke someone trying to frisk them. The junkies were always a big question mark, and they were apprehended with extra care and with considerable attention towards employee and customer safety.

So once we had them in custody, we'd walk the troublemakers downstairs to our storeroom, where they'd sit nicely and wait for the police to arrive. The ones who admit to their lawbreaking are the ones that cause no trouble. Sadly, they're the minority. It's funny that about 95% of all shoplifters deny their actions, even though they've been seen by multiple witnesses and our security camera network. Even when you fish a product out of their jacket, they claim it's from another store. When the product has the nametag of OUR store printed on it with large letters, they claim they bought it the day before. And when the product is still cool due to being lifted only a moment ago, they claim that their low-body temperature maintains the coolness. After months and years of work you've heard just about anything from a little white lie to a huge, whopping black one.

Once in custody we also try to talk some sense into them. It's usually futile, since they're so drunk or junked up that they can't remember a thing the next day. But we do it for our pleasure too. We try to crack their shells and make them see the wrong in their actions. I don't claim that it's anything to do with reformation or preaching better ways in life, it was more a good past time and every now and then a competition of who can make the big man cry first. I'm not proud of the teasing, nor of the occasional slaps to the face we administered, but it was all a result of frustration. We work our asses off to keep the customers satisfied, and our precious time and effort is wasted while having to baby-sit a shoplifter who is too inebriated to control his bowel movement.

My years at the grocery store taught me a newfound cynicism for the world and its people. It's like Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere", where the bums and vagrants are invisible to other people. Of course you can see them sitting by the railway station or in front of heating vents, but my sometimes lengthy discussions with them in the storeroom below my work place gave me an incredible insight into some of their lives. For example, one of the worst cases, not in terms of misbehaviour or brawling but in quality of life, used to be an actor in the old Finnish Spede-films. You couldn't recognise him with first glance, but his welfare card had a picture of him from his younger days. It's amazing how life treats you.

After I quit my job, I learned to look at people in a new way. Before, especially at work, I could divide them into potential shoplifters and the rest. Now I could look at people, and at the mirror, and understand that each and every one could have their luck turn against them just around the corner. It's a dismal view of life, but one that makes me try even harder to succeed and to avoid the pitfalls and shadows that are so easy to fall into. [tags]shoplift, brawl, junkie[/tags]

Wild Life

Horoscopes for January 21, 2008