Ryan Brown, The Thief

When I was a child I asked one of my parents what the chunky plastic tags were that I saw pinned to some of the merchandise in a department store. They explained that these were anti-theft devices and if you tried to remove them they’d spray ink all over the place, ruining the jacket they were attached to. I thought that was so exciting. It meant there were real thieves in the world! I’d always thought of robbers alongside goblins or mad scientists. They were one-dimensional tropes from far-fetched stories like the hamburglar or the wet bandits in Home Alone. I was enamored with this idea that stealing was something real people were doing in the real world.

About 10 years later I was a senior in high school. I began noticing that socially, we all abide by a clear right and wrong. But economically, there’s this ability to distance ourselves from morals. If you can coerce someone into paying a crazy sum of money for something, you’re not considered a bad person. You’re just doing business. In the marketplace, the concepts of right and wrong are thrown out the window and replaced by the concepts of winning and losing. This epiphany, that our entire economic system boils down to “you’re entitled to whatever you can get away with” was very liberating and I failed to see why it should apply to a business but not its patrons. Why can't the game be played by both sides? A store devises a system that prevents me from stealing their products and I try to beat that system. We’re all just doing business, seeing what we can get away with. Trying to be winners, not losers.

But I still had to steal responsibly. The operating principle that “you’re entitled to whatever you can get away with” meant that it was only okay if I didn’t get caught. My confidence came from the cynicism of young adulthood, which grew stronger in me by the day. I took comfort in the ineptitude of the average worker. Most retail employees aren’t paying very close attention. I knew stores had security cameras. I’d seen the little shiny black hemispheres that dotted their ceilings. I knew someone, somewhere was watching those cameras. But were they really paying attention? Such close attention as to discern between harmless browsing and kleptomania? They look very similar on camera.

So, one by one, these psychological dominoes fell and gave rise to a shoplifting phase that would last about three years. It’s not like I’d do it everyday. After each heist I would lie low for awhile but I was always thinking about it. I’d walk into a store, notice something and start looking around, thinking about how I’d do it. What steps could I take to minimize risk? What were my contingency plans if things went left? How could I could keep plausible deniability?

The treasure trove that is north Raleigh Kohl's.

The treasure trove that is north Raleigh Kohl's.

I hit my local Kohl’s twice. The first time was for shoes. See, it was perfectly acceptable to try on a pair of shoes, put your old ones in the empty box and take it to the register to pay while wearing the new shoes out of the store. I’d done it before myself. But hey, what if you skipped that pesky step where you stop at the cash register? Would anyone really notice? I was willing to bet they wouldn’t. I walked in wearing an old pair of flip flops, socks in my pocket. I found some New Balances, put them on, left my flip flops in the box and confidently walked out the front doors. I didn’t even need the shoes. I gave them to a friend. I just needed to prove my scheme could work.

Another time I went into Kohl’s and saw they had some nice Adidas sweatpants. Classic black with the three white stripes running down the leg. I saw these and thought “Woah. My parkour bros could sure use some pants.” See, I’d begun dabbling in parkour with a couple friends and while I had some cool sweatpants to wear whilst climbing buildings, these guys did not. So I decided to pick up some sweatpants for the boys.

I grabbed three pairs, and took them into the completely unattended fitting room. I only needed two but I thought walking out empty-handed might arouse suspicion. So, I slid two pairs on underneath my jeans and looked surprisingly normal despite the extra layers. Then I left the fitting room, hung the third pair back up and made for the exit.

I was always nervous during that part. As you move towards the doors, that’s your time of reckoning. It’s when all your planning is put to the test. If an employee is going to utter that dreaded phrase, “Excuse me, Sir”, this is when it’s going to happen. My mind would flood with second guesses. “Was there a magnetic security tag that you missed? Did they see you walk into the fitting room with all those sweatpants? Have they been onto you the whole time?” All of these questions are answered at once as you walk through those doors and out into the parking lot.

The relief never came instantly. The parking lot never felt safe. Once I got in my car, the tension eased a little. Still though, my heart would beat hard on the drive home. It wasn’t until I was in my bedroom, looking at the sweatpants neatly folded on my bed that I knew I’d done it. That day Kohl’s was having a sale just for me. Free Adidas sweatpants.

Once I got into college my theft became much more practical. I’d steal little boxes of chick fil a nuggets from the dining hall. The odd snack or juice from an on-campus market. But I didn’t enjoy it as much. I had nothing left to prove to myself. It was just about getting the thing, purely need-based. Then once I started taking out student loans and actually had a little spending money I got out of the game for good.

Chuck Palahniuk's "Rant". Maybe the last thing I ever stole. Good read.

Chuck Palahniuk's "Rant". Maybe the last thing I ever stole. Good read.

I never got caught but I had one very close call. I was stealing a book from Barnes & Nobles. I’d stolen books before and I had a technique. My MO was to take it into a bathroom, conceal it in my waistband under my shirt then walk out of the store. However, this time as I walked through the doors the alarm went off. There were no other customers around, nobody else I could pin it on. It was beyond obvious that my passage through the doors triggered the alarm. The registers were 10 feet away, fully staffed. Adrenaline shot through my body but I didn’t stop or speed up. I kept looking forward and walking straight ahead. We’ve all set those alarms off on a fluke before. That would be my story. Mentally, I stayed fully committed to this alternate reality where I was innocent and there was no Chuck Palahniuk novel in my shorts, sticking to my now-sweaty abdomen. I kept walking out into the parking lot, got in my minivan and drove off. Nobody stopped me or said a word to me. It was the ineptitude of the average worker. It was also undeniably the fact that I was a very young, innocent-looking white kid. But it rattled me and I think it might’ve been the last thing I ever stole. When I got home I fanned open the pages of the book and out fell the little magnetic sticker that nearly took down my whole operation.

The fact is, I’m not actually cut out to be a criminal. I've got the rebellious spirit but I lack the appetite for risk. Some people enjoy the brazen nature of leaving a store with something they didn't pay for. I had a complicated relationship with it. I was always scared of getting caught. It wasn’t the pressure that I enjoyed, it was overcoming it. The self-mastery of staying calm under that duress is what I liked. I got off on devising a plan, then putting it to the test against high stakes. Now I get that from comedy. Doing stand up feels like the same process. You formulate a plan, then you execute under pressure. When it works, it’s the best feeling in the world but when it doesn’t work, I don’t have to hire a lawyer. So, in the long run, it’s probably a more sustainable way to get my fix.

And you can see me get my fix LIVE this February when I’m on tour. All the cities and dates are listed on the tour poster here. We just added Banner Elk, NC.

Learn more and get tickets

Also, a quick follow-up to my last post about getting older, losing my hair, etc. A couple weeks ago I wrote...

When I was younger, barbers would routinely comment “Wow. Your hair is so thick!” Now they make small talk about the weather and ask what I do for a living.

It's as if the universe reads my blog. Last Tuesday, after publishing that post, I was getting my hair cut. For the first time in years, my barber said "Wow. Your hair is really thick. I guess it beats being bald." I STILL GOT IT!