I stole easily and often in those months, and my compulsion knew no bounds. Fuelled by a deluded arrogance and a sense of entitlement underwritten by the unfairness of the niggardly wages at the retail chain, my sticky fingers cut a nightly swath through the aisles. This is slave labor, I thought in facile and voluptuous self-persuasion. Highway robbery. We're being taken advantage of. Some of my colleagues were also stealing - I was sure of it - on different levels, and one, a good friend, had even been caught trying to smuggle out a CD. Feeling a kinship with my fellow cogs-in-the-corporate-wheel, and underage sweatshop workers, my baroque rationalization was complete.
Of course, the truth, as per ushe, was a bit more complicated. I could have busted my ass, hustling my way into a better paying job, but frankly, didn't know how. Then there was the endless torment of being denied a raise -- as a supervisor working for minimum wage -- time after time for the most infinitesimal and pettiest of reasons. Was it my problem that the fools on my watch couldn't add or subtract -- that a VISA transaction was off by a fraction of a decimal?
Ironically, these were some of the best times of my life. Not because of the loot, but because of the camaraderie and humor fostered amongst my coworkers, bright and charismatic beings all. Many of us were young and sensitive, passionate, genuinely critical thinkers. We were forging our own styles through the form and content of books and music -- seductively shiny packaging our siren song. The older folks were mostly liberal and young at heart -- we were a de facto family of sorts. There was sometimes drama or high dudgeon, never malice. We would often work on holidays, and would have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in the workroom, with food and communal sharing of the pipe in the staff toilet (the secret to stemming the odor problem was to exhale into the commode as you were flushing, and supposedly the smoke would be sucked down). Everyone was there because they enjoyed the work -- they had to be. (That was before the rot set in.) It's funny, at one point we were having a staff meeting at the local pub across the street. The store manager, with ultra-serious affect, brought up a customer complaint. Someone knew someone else who thought that they had heard one of the employees at the front counter complain that the company CEO was a "cheap Jew." This was hilarious. Not because the remark, if it had been made, was in any way funny. But because it was patently impossible that anyone on our staff of educated, measured-in-their-comments folks would have ever said such a thing. It was purely a case of Chinese whispers.
Becoming more and more reckless in my adventures, I knew the jig would soon be up, but was in a state of denial. Arriving to work one day, I was greeted by a passel of security. They were there with evidence of my crimes and my walking papers. The confession was signed admitting certain things, but it was oh-so-carefully worded. Jail-time was perilously close, but ultimately avoided. Walking the plank, i.e. out of the store, there was a certain numbness mixed with pride and a prick of shame. I met a friend for lunch - mango burgers at the local diner. A year later, I was satisfied to hear through the grapevine that the patronizing security guard who had sealed my fate was hoist by his own petard -- sacked for being caught on camera in a nightly workroom jack-off session. A two-way mirror alone is no guarantee of protection. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Now, on one of my daily sallies to a venerable German book retailer, I watch as a male customer blithely scoops into his hand the contents of the bathroom attendant's tip jar. Mouth agape, I look around to see if anyone has cottoned to this fact. In true Berlin fashion, everyone is minding their own goddamn business. If they had seen it, I doubt anyone would have said anything, either. It's a bustling setting, too, gemuetlich, folks ensconced in leather chairs, tucked into novels or tucking into their kuechen. The bells of a snow-encrusted Kaiser Wilhelm church, right across the way, clang comfortingly.
Flanked on either side by the stacks of books I've been perusing, as I turn to go, I reach out to insert them into my bag, open-zippered like a hungry black maw. I stop myself in my tracks. Hovering in a giddy mental space of momentary uncertainty, I feel like a housewife about to pop her first valium. Then it's back to earth as I realize in a millisecond where my property ends and the store's begins. I zip up my bag, locking inside the strong gravity, the pull of kleptomania (never ever stronger than the possibility of imprisonment in a foreign country), and walk out briskly, relieved, welcoming the sobering winter air into my lungs.