Monday, May 5, 2008

Adventures in (not) Shoplifting

I have much to do today. I took a day of leave from the office to get it done. But I have to tell this story.

About an hour ago, I decided to make a quick run to the store for lunch. I figured I'd grab some sushi from the deli and knock out a little grocery shopping. This is not a leisurely exercise mind you. I have a list. I'm on a mission. Typical guy shopping. Get in. Get out. Get it done.

Checking the pantry beforehand to finalize my list I see a bottle of wine I've been meaning to return and exchange. Nothing expensive. I used to buy wine by the case when I had someone to enjoy it with every afternoon. Now it's more haphazard. And typically, a bottle will go bad before I finish it, suction corks and inert gassing notwithstanding. A few weeks ago, I picked up a couple bottles of shamefully inexpensive wine on the recommendation of the shop owner. He'd been dead right on the better bottles I'd purchased over time, so when he said this little $4 cab was worth a try, I figured what the heck. A cup of coffee costs more at Starbucks.

But when I went to pull a bottle back out of the rack at home, my hand came up all wet from the wine leaking around the foil. Figuring that bottle had a better than average chance of being corked, I set it up in the pantry to prevent it leaking onto the carpet if I left it in the rack, and I made a mental note to exchange it.

Fast forward a couple weeks to an hour or so ago. The wine shop is next door to the grocery store. I'm not going to mention any names here because I like these people, or I did. Still like the husband. Probably keep shopping there just out of sympathy for him. Keep reading, you'll understand why.

Anyway, I park right in front of the door of the wine shop. I take my bottle of wine and step inside. Not a soul in sight. "Hello." Wait. "Anybody home." Wait. Nothing. "I'll come back." I turn around and head right back out the door, open the driver's side door to the Jeep, lay the bottle on the driver's seat so I don't forget to go back in and try again, close the door and walk away to the grocery store. Mind you, I never stepped more than four paces inside the door of the wine shop. I was, presciently, a little worried about going deeper into the store without someone to witness that I was bringing the bottle in the door with me.

So, I press on to King Sooper, whiz through my grocery shopping, and am back at my Jeep in probably 15 minutes or so. Waiting for me are a man and a woman. As I'm putting my groceries in the passenger side, the woman begins to speak.

"Sir, we just want you to know that we've written down your license number and the police are on the way." Oddly enough, this isn't said in an exactly friendly tone.

I knew immediately what was going on. I think I must have foreseen it when I stepped in the door to start with and no one was there and I knew better than to go further.

"Well good," I said, really not unkindly or argumentatively. It helps to know that you're in the right. I wasn't really worried about how it was all going to turn out. I was mostly concerned about getting things straightened out and getting back here to get to work. (This blog entry is therapy--a winding down.) "When they get here, we can all look at your security tapes together. You do have a security camera don't you?"

"Yes. We know we're missing a bottle."

Without commenting on whatever problems they were having accurately tracking their inventory, I went back to the camera. "Have you looked at your tapes? If you'll look at your tape, you'll see that I came in the door with that bottle of wine to exchange it. It's leaking. I expect it's probably corked." As I say this, I'm walking around the Jeep, getting the wine out of the front seat, and walking into the store. "If you'd simply waited inside, you'd have seen me come back, get the bottle out again, and walk into the store."

Inside the store, the woman alternates between ignoring me in favor of the one other customer they have and continuing to cast accusations my way.

"Well what did you run away so fast for?"

?? "I didn't run away. I put the bottle on the front seat of my Jeep so I wouldn't leave without remembering to try again, and I walked to King Sooper to do my grocery shopping. I didn't run anywhere, and I wasn't even going to drive away without coming in the store again."

"We're missing a bottle," she repeated.

"I can't help that. I paid for this one weeks ago. I brought it back to exchange because it's leaking. Here," I said, taking a business card from my wallet, "I'll go you one better than a license tag, here's my business card. Look at your tapes!"

The husband meanwhile, who has driven in from home, has verified that the bottle is, in fact, leaking and possibly corked. To him, the truth of the situation is fairly obvious. Who's going to enter a store, make a circuit of the place and abscond with a $4 bottle of wine, drop it in their vehicle parked by the front door, then walk away, shop for a while and return. He says as much. Adding that it makes sense to him. If I were going to steal something, I'd certainly have chosen something worthwhile. But the woman, meanwhile, is having none of it. I've been tried and convicted in her book, and if I'm not guilty of stealing the wine, then, I'm by God guilty of making her think I did.

"Why didn't you just wait?" she asked.

"Because I have things to do, and it was no trouble to go on and do my grocery shopping and return since you were obviously busy in the back somewhere. I called out twice. For that matter, why didn't you, just wait? If you'd waited inside the store for about half a minute, you'd have seen me return, retrieve the bottle and come in to try again. Or better yet," and this was truly the snippiest thing I said during the entire conversation, "if you'd been up here doing your job, none of this would have happened."

"I was using the bathroom."

"I understand. People have needs. But if you came out in time to see me put the bottle in the Jeep, then why didn't you come out the door and shout at me then?"

"You're much taller than I am. I came in and called him."

I kid you not. I was dumbstruck. A thousand witty things come to mind now, and even non-witty, frank questions, like, "Do I look like I go around beating up shop owners?" (I'm wearing jeans, suede Timberline loafers, and a white golf shirt today.) Or, "I'm taller than him too you know." I stood there. Speechless.

"Will you please look at the tapes? Are the police coming or not?" I'm hoping they are. I want to be there when she looks at the tapes and sees that I never got far enough in the door to take anything.

"No. I didn't call them. I didn't want to ruin anyone's day."

"Well this has clearly ruined yours."

"I'm fine."

"You don't seem fine. And the boss had to come in."

"For your information, this is my husband, not my boss."

"Clearly," on the inside. "Sorry," out loud, looking at her, but really meaning it for him.

At this point, the husband is apologizing as much as he dares. You can almost see the mental calculations going on. Piss off a customer vs piss off the wife. I'd have kissed the customer goodbye too. And I wasn't even pissed off. Anger germinates in fear, and I never really had anything to be afraid of here. Loss of time, maybe, waiting for the police to review the security tapes, but the truth of what was going on was too intuitively obvious to the husband to require that.

"I'm really sorry," he said at one point. "Before we put up the cameras, we were losing a lot of inventory."

"I understand," I said. "Believe me. I grew up in a grocery store in North Carolina. I completely understand." I was trying, really trying, to find some common ground here.

The rest of the conversation gets somewhat fuzzy. I can't remember exactly what it was she was saying that kept making it clear she just wanted me to leave and she didn't care if I ever came back. I kept trying to find some middle ground where we could all be friends again, but apparently, if shoplifting is a misdemeanor, not shoplifting but looking like you might have--even though you tried studiously to avoid that appearance--is an unforgivable felony.

Still, I'd rather be the guy wrongly accused than the guy who wouldn't hold the cross while she nailed me up. Even after all was said and done, it was clear she was still convinced she'd caught me red-handed trying to make off with a bottle of wine worth considerably less than a gallon of gas. Worst of all, now the husband was my accomplice. All her left over anger had to go somewhere. I should pick up a good Scotch later today (from somewhere else) and drop it off for him in a gift bag. I think he's gonna need it.