I go to Michigan Avenue frequently because my doctor is nearby, but I never visit the more upscale shops there. Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, etc.–I just don’t go in. Partly because I find expensive fashion incredibly ugly and impractical, but partly because I just don’t fit in.
Yesterday my daughter accompanied me to a doctor’s appointment, and once we were done, and we were walking up the street, I thought I’d just show her Neiman Marcus.
My scruffiness that day was such that I thought I’d be instantly tailed. But the store was quite empty, and sales staff were very welcoming.
As we wandered through the quiet murmuring store, suddenly three large men thundered past us like they were in Mission Impossible, ran out the doors and tackled somebody to the ground. We stared in shock. Salespersons quickly smiled at us, saying “sorry, sorry, ladies,” – as if we were at a tea party and someone had spilled a drop on my saucer.
We heard shouts and the sounds of a woman protesting.
I decided to take my daughter upstairs to the shoes department. As we got out of the elevator, I saw tears running down her face. She was utterly shaken. Who was it, she wanted to know. How poor was she? So what if she shoplifted, they didn’t have to hit her.
I realized that I had left the scene in fear, so as to separate myself from the incident. Maybe I should have followed the men and acted as a bystander-observer to keep them in check. I felt guilty.
I took her back down, and approached a cluster of quietly clucking sales staff. “Is she okay?” I asked one. “Oh yes,” said she, smiling, and leaned forward confidingly, whispering, “She was stealing.” “I know,” I said, “but still.” “Oh yes,” she quickly smiled with great compassion.
We left the store. As we crossed the doors, I saw a torn hair extension on the floor.
I’m not unhappy that my daughter saw all that. I’m glad she didn’t just see Neiman Marcus as a glittering place of daydreams. I’m glad that, in the five minutes we spent there, the mask fell off.
We had a talk about social inequality. We talked about how stealing is wrong, but how, in the presence of an extreme wealth gap, the force and authority of law enforcement do not fit. Because wealthy people and celebrities shoplift but never do significant time. The everyday morality that maligns minor shoplifting but ignores systemic oppression and wealth concentration is merely a cover for protecting corporate interests against the grubby paws of all the others, all of us.