It’s finally happened. My home is a haven of criminality. I live surrounded by thieves, anarchists and drug abusers, but up until now, I have managed to remain a beacon of honesty and integrity, a light in the darkness, a paragon of virtue. And then I got caught shoplifting on Friday. This came as as much of a surprise to me as it does to you. Not because I didn’t expect to get caught, but because I didn’t know I was doing it at the time.
I was caught by the man (who in this case was a short, round little woman) taking a pie out of the Pick ‘n Pay without paying for it. As I always say, go large or go home!
Let me lay out my defence. Firstly, I was not feeling very alert. This was not my fault. My son, a lord of chaos masquerading as a sweet, sensitive boy, had decided to investigate the alarm clock in our bathroom. Naturally, he had set it for 2:30 am. As one does. South Africa is not the sort of place where one gets woken by strange noises in the middle of the night and takes it lightly. I lurched out of bed armed with a set of dangerous catch-phrases (“I’ll kick your arse so hard your dog will bleed!”) before realising that it was just a clock. Then I had to find it. Drunk with sleep and blind without my glasses, I lurched around for five minutes before finding it on top of the toilet cistern. Obviously. The rest of the family, shagged out after a heavy day of bringing civilisation to its knees, slept on oblivious, but that was it for my night.
Secondly, the good people at the Pick ‘n Pay had laid out a whole display of children’s’ toys at markdown prices, right next to the till where I usually pay (I do, I promise!). I had picked up my pie and was making my way to the till to pay when, in my exhausted state, I stopped to browse, happily daydreaming about how my sleep-destroying first-born was never going to get any of these. It took me a while to decide which one I would feel best about not buying him. Finally settling on a really cool radio controlled truck/helicopter, I smiled quietly to myself and started off back to work.
And then it happened. “Excuse me sir! Can I see your receipt please?” came a shrill, challenging voice. The penny hadn’t dropped yet, so I cheerfully fished out my wallet. I opened it up to grab the receipt, and saw the R100 note I had just drawn to pay for the pie, unbroken. Oh shit!
Most people at this point would go into some sort of panic. All I thought was “oh dear. Here we go again!” my heart rate didn’t even go up.
You see, I have spent my entire life in a self-imposed but nonetheless intensive training program for incidents just like this. Not accidental shoplifting, but absent-mindedly blundering into the sorts of situations that other people only face once or twice in a lifetime. They say it takes at least 10 000hours of practice to become a genius at something. When it comes to blundering innocently into a world of trouble, I passed the 10 000 hour mark before I had all my adult teeth. My son may be a lord of chaos, but I am its master.
At junior school, I could cheerfully get ten minutes into a lesson before realising that I wasn’t even signed up for that class. Arriving at the right sport with the right equipment was beyond me. Minor issues like homework assignments didn’t even appear on my radar until the day they were due. And all the time I was learning how to cope with my disability.
High school provided me with a five year break. When I was at school, caning was the accepted method of punishment. I soon realised that I could happily ignore any duties or responsibilities in exchange for a regular beating. In my first year, I broke the annual beatings per year record, without ever actively misbehaving. It sounds barbaric in these enlightened times, but it was all very cheerful and civilised. And it did amazing things for my street cred.
At university, things went to hell again. I arrived for my first exam without any identification. I would phone home, spitting mad, to tell my parents that my bike had been stolen, only to find it, days later, exactly where I had left it. More than once, I arrived for exams only to find that I had studied the wrong subject.
And life has continued in this vein ever since. I went on a fifteen day holiday alone in the bush with only one set of underwear (I could tell you things about chafing that would make a Mongol horseman weep). I arrived at the airport, packed and ready for my first work conference, with underpants to spare, to find that my flight had left two days previously.
It’s never simple, either. Lots of people crash their cars. I crashed mine into an off-duty policeman. Lots of people lock their keys in their cars. I managed to do so with the engine running. Everybody accidentally cuts themselves. I managed to almost sever a toe at a remote hotel where the only doctor was drunk and only seemed to have six inches of bandage, and sewed me up with dental floss. Lots of people have found themselves hooked on a barbed-wire fence. I managed to do so as a raging bush-fire swept towards me.
You would think that I would learn to avoid these situations, but that part of my brain appears to be missing. The part of my brain that deals with them once they arrive, however, is a masterpiece. Coping with this sort of thing is like breathing to me. I can break into almost any house or car, not to steal but to get my keys out. I can push start a car when there is no-one around to help. I know what to do when my jersey bursts into flames while I am stuck on a barbed -wire fence. Getting arrested for shoplifting is no biggie.
The first thing that crossed my mind was that all the genuinely guilty shoplifters would say precisely the same thing as the innocent ones in this situation. So instead of falling to my knees and tearfully proclaiming my innocence, I strolled up to the approaching manager, told him I had been caught walking out without paying, and asked him what we were all going to do about it. This seemed to throw him a little. Then I told him that what I would do if I were him would be to ask the security guard whether she thought I was so confident a thief that I would walk straight past her with the contraband in my hand, or just a moron. She went for the moron option. I was a free man!
Or not. The manager told me that by now he too was convinced that I was a moron and not a thief, but there were certain formalities that had to be followed. The formalities seemed to consist mainly of following another man to the small, open booth where all the thieves go. And only the thieves go. The good people of the Pick ‘n Pay have placed the booth in full view of the public, since their lawyers obviously told them that putting up a set of stocks would be dodgy.
I tried to look like I was trying to sell the guard life insurance, but since I was dressed as a lumberjack, I don’t know that anyone was convinced. Mothers covered their children’s’ eyes. Attractive young women turned their backs on me. Small groups of Patrician-looking old men shook their heads and whispered about how it was probably drugs. And I signed a full confession to unlawful trespassing.
South Africa can be a wonderful place. When the guard had led me over to the shaming booth, he had been bold and upright. Purposeful. Purposefully he reached for a stack of important looking papers and began to flick through them telling me I had to “sign a paper saying I took something without paying”. Slightly less purposefully, he put them back. When he picked up the next stack of papers I would venture to suggest that he was starting to look a little vague. “You mean a confession of theft?” I asked, growing a little alarmed for the first time. “Oh no.” he said, flicking hopefully through the stack. “Just a paper to say you took something without paying”. Thank God!
The second pile went back in its place. He reached for a last, battered, dog eared pile of papers, avoiding eye contact like I was Medusa’s long-lost son. He began to page through them carefully, while I stood avoiding the gazes of the watching crowd like they were Medusa’s extended family. He reached the end. And started back at the beginning again.
Eventually, looking down at his sad little pile of paper as if his gaze was the only thing stopping it from bursting into flames, he pulled out a ragged, thrice photocopied piece of paper and shamefacedly handed it over. “Just sign this” he said. It was an acknowledgement that I had been trespassing. In a crowded supermarket. After a brief pause I ventured to say “This doesn’t say anything about my taking your pie.” “I know.” he replied “They are all the same. Please just sign it. My boss is watching.”
So there you go. My record in terms of pie-stealing remains unblemished, but I am now a known supermarket trespasser. This is not quite as happy an outcome as it seems. For months now, I have been gathering together a full camo outfit. I have a pair of camo pants. I have a khaki shirt. I have a full camo jacket with hood. I was planning to sneak into the Pick ‘n Pay one sunny day and nip around the fresh produce section like a stoat, unseen by man or beast. But now they are going to be watching me. My picture will go into a file, and hidden men in a darkened room filled with flickering monitors will track my progress from the moment I pass the magazine rack. No hiding behind the Pick ‘n Pay parsley shelf for me. Maybe I can give it a bash at Woolworths.
I suppose I should be grateful though. At least they didn’t find the packet of two-minute noodles that had accidentally fallen into my sock as I bent down to tie my shoelace in the pasta aisle.