If I had been a slightly lazier shift supervisor at Tower Records, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. It might come as a shock to some people, but as a record store in Oakland, California, we had a bit of a theft problem. It got bad enough that as a staff we began keeping a list of the different tactics customers utilized to smuggle out the goods, rating them on a scale of 1 – “so impressive, can’t even be mad.” There was a middle-aged gentleman who lined the insides of his jeans with aluminum foil to block the sensor tags from setting off the alarm. He crinkled when he walked. All hilariously noisy pants aside – it was because of this marathon of crime that, once a month, I had to scan through “high risk” departments of our store looking for discrepancies in the physical inventory. Now, I enjoyed it because it meant I didn’t have to talk to customers; because I enjoyed it, I did a decent job, and that’s really where this all went terribly, terribly wrong.
I never liked mysteries, at least not for the right reasons. I think the concept of crime and punishment is fine, but the issue I have with bringing said crime forth into the punishing light of day is that a lot of times the criminals will do anything to keep their secrets in the dark. And by anything, I mean murder – they’ll murder you. Given the fact that I feel my life goal is to evade the homicide tagline in my obituary, solving crimes just never felt like my calling.
And yet, curiosity is a double-edged sword. As I began to see trends developing in our product loss, I started to wonder why. It was an awkward thing to recognize the same pornography titles disappearing every month, but somehow it was more awkward to notice that over 4 months, 8 copies of the complete Sex and the City series box set had vanished as well. I mentioned the patterns to our loss prevention agent who, after downing his third mid-shift beer, said maybe he’d look into it, which I took to mean: I am never going to look into that. It wasn’t hard to see why so much product went missing in our store.
I tried to move on with my life, but every month I would be reminded. Customers would complain to me, saying an employee told them that there were three copies of the last season of Seinfeld, but they couldn’t find any on the shelves. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I’d say, over and over again. “It’s Oakland. Things go missing.” This rarely satisfied anyone, but I thought it was better than saying, “The last season is garbage, anyway. Find a new show.”
After a particularly irate customer slammed through the double doors in a dramatic huff, one of my clerks turned to me, exasperated. “Someone is stealing,” she exclaimed.
I just stared at her. “…Yes. Many someones, actually.”
“No, someone who works here,” she clarified.
“Oh yeah? Who?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out.”
“Right. Well, do your detective work on your own time, okay?”
It wasn’t even that I didn’t believe her; it was that I didn’t want to believe her. In my sheltered 18 years of suburban life, I had never once encountered an actual criminal, and the idea that I was now working alongside one was far too Lifetime-movie for my brain to handle. But since she was determined to play super sleuth, I provided the information I had gathered and asked, politely, to remain an anonymous source.
Well, we don’t always get what we want.
In the midst of everything, I thought it was a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, after years of reflection, I don’t believe there was a way I could have avoided playing the role I did in the investigation. It was on my watch that the suspect chose to clean out his car, it was on my watch that he left his office door unlocked, and it was on my watch that yet another oversized, offensively pink Sex and the City box set just disappeared. I should have known there was something wrong when the extent of my interview for the job was “name your top 3 favorite bands.” It was as if he had been trying to determine exactly how low my professional aspirations were, and my responses of “Green Day, Rancid, and Bad Religion” were exactly the picture of anti-establishment, unenthusiastic work ethic he wanted.
The clerk and I stared out the windows of an all-glass store front, watching my manager empty the contents of his back seat into a black garbage bag before disappearing around the corner to pitch it in the dumpster. As he sped off in his black, early 2000’s Honda Civic, the self-proclaimed detective-clerk asked me if she could go dumpster diving for the bag. As a first response, I sighed and shook my head. “Do what you want,” I said with resignation. “Just do it on your break.”
What she brought in and forced me to witness was an impeccable culmination of all my fears. An entire trash bag filled with empty DVD cases of all the items I had flagged as stolen, wrappers with sensor tags and price stickers, and his personal mail. Because why not, right? He was so convinced that no one he had hired was paying any sort of attention that he didn’t even bother to separate evidence of his crime from his bank statements. When we handed the damning evidence over to loss prevention, his only response was that he needed more proof.
“Can you match when the product is coming in with his work schedule?” he asked.
“I can. I don’t want to at all, but I can,” I answered.
After all, this was my fault. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten too curious, and had made a snippy remark to instill doubt into the minds of my team members. By the end of the week, all the other supervisors and most of the clerks knew about the trash bag and never missed an opportunity to credit me with cracking the case.
“This is all thanks to you,” they whispered, clapping me on the back like I had done something remarkable on purpose. It hadn’t been intentional, I’d argue. All I did was scan boxes and count. That’s all my $10/hour paid me to do, and that’s exactly what I had done. Breaking open a grand larceny scheme was just an unfortunate coincidence.
As it goes, the metaphorical dominos tipped and crashed into each other, each event more caustic and unstoppable as the one before it. My manager, unconcerned racketeer that he was, left me to lock up his office after I ordered new signage for the store one evening. There I sat in front of his computer, fingertips on the home row, futilely trying to fabricate a reason not to meddle. Proving unsuccessful in resisting, I typed “ebay.com” into his web browser.
Immediately his account came up, auto-logged in with his sales history just one click away. Scrolling down the list was like reading my monthly reports. It was at that time that I knew two things for sure, the first being that he was positively the most disastrous pilferer in existence. I printed out the sales history, 10 pages in total. On top of a stack of stock reports, I noticed he had left his flight confirmation receipt for a trip to Hawaii. Tens of thousands of dollars made from stolen merchandise to fund a trip to Maui, and he couldn’t be bothered to do any of his work at home. It was shameful.
The second was that our accidental foray into the world of fighting crime was about to leave the safety of our store, and would consequentially become a very real thing. Several loss prevention agents from all around the state performed stakeouts as a means to gather more evidence. They huddled in cars in the parking lot, every once and a while reminding me to act natural if they thought I was glancing out the front windows too often.
“Just go about your day,” one of the agents told me. “Don’t raise suspicion.”
I wanted to tell him that if whispers from an entire team of underpaid employees and a sudden fascination with taking out the trash hadn’t raised suspicion already, my occasional glance towards the outside world probably wasn’t going to tip our hand. It took three months before the police were ready to make the arrest, and I remember watching four uniformed officers bust in through the front doors like something out of NYPD Blue. Several CDs clattered to the floor as a group of youths turned an awkward shade of white and fled the building. Then, after about 10 minutes, our operations manager was paraded out from the back room in handcuffs.
He looked at me as he was marched through the front doors, as if to say, “How could you?” Like he knew, like I had betrayed him. In that moment I was defensive, “How could I? How could you be such an idiot? I didn’t want this! I’m the victim here!” I wanted to say. But he was gone before I could argue, and just like that, the case I hadn’t wanted to open was closed.
As we watched him loaded into a squad car, I turned to my coworker and said, only half-jokingly, “I wonder if he’ll still get to go to Hawaii.”
I found out a few months later: he did not.