this has bothered me all afternoon. after church this morning I stopped at a grocery where I knew I could buy a sunday new york times. I'd stepped in and picked up a copy and was in the process of joining the line to pay for it when something happening just a few yards to the left of me caught my attention.
a cashier had apparently caught a young boy of about 10 or 12 shoplifting, or failing at shoplifting, and caught up with him outside and walked him in a few moments behind me. she wasn't berating him badly or being abusive. she was the only one talking loud enough of the 2 of them for me to hear and I caught her saying, "I know you're heading for the register, I'm heading with you to the register," and "do you have enough money to pay for that? so you are going to pay for it?" I couldn't see what the "it" was, but from the way she held it in her hand I figure it was a small can of soda or maybe a candy bar.
I left before the drama played itself out--she was calling for someone to come over to the register as I paid and stepped back out--and there wasn't a reason I needed to see the kid humiliated. as a person who has done his share of theft, including shoplifting, I'm not anyone to have proferred advice in the situation. except perhaps to tell the kid you don't wear a black hoodie with the hood up if you're a tween planning a snatch & grab--you might as well wear a sign around your neck saying, "gonna do something, here."
here's what bothers me. the area around there is a mix of housing projects and typical suburban houses. I was in bloomington, mn, which is 1 of those odd quickly-building suburbs in the hub that was farmland in recent memory--the church where I am finishing my internship was a seed congregation only 30-some years ago made up primarily of commuters from minneapolis. the place is filling in more quickly than a community ought to and so everyone, middle and lower class and a few upper middle class, live cheek by jowl. so the kid could have been shoplifting for 1 of 2 reasons: he was a stereotypical middle class white kid (and he was white) looking for thrills or he was making a grab at something he couldn't afford (I never heard the outcome to whether he had the money to pay for "it").
what bothers me is that my reaction changes depending on which kid he is. if he's able to afford it, I say good on the cashier: he's taking part in a traditional attempt of kids to test their boundaries and he's not getting away with it and the humiliation of being caught and marched back inside and made to pay might be enough to keep him on the straight and narrow later. who knows, had this happened with ken lay decades ago enron might have had a different ending.
but if he's not able to afford it my reaction's different. I've lifted because of inability to pay for the food I wanted to eat--admittedly, with greater finesse--and I ask myself, if I'd known the kid couldn't pay, would I step forward and offer to pay for him? the answer is yes, and that is what bothers me. is it right that my response depends on the kid's situation? shouldn't theft be theft, no matter the circumstances? if I'd been caught, there would not have been anyone to step forward to pay for me, and I'd have been lucky to only have been humiliated. is it different because he's a kid? am I more lenient because I'm not a kid?
this is a hopelessly complicated reaction to an event that took only a few moments time and to which I don't know much more than the middle. but I think it's in entertaining these complications and rounding back on ourselves to try to examine them more closely that we participate in humanity, having a relationship even with cashiers and kids we never meet.