A funny thing happened at work the other day. I single-handedly tackled a shoplifter, who was attempting to make off with half-a-dozen pork joints by stuffing them into a handbag. It might seem peculiar that I’m making such a big deal out of this, particularly as I’ve been working part-time in a supermarket for the past seven years, but one-on-one confrontation is something I try to avoid at the best of times.
I’ve always seen myself as a bit of a coward, you see. Being a self-confessed ‘geek’, I’ve never been happier than when I’m occupying anywhere but the real world. Add to that five years of bullying at secondary school, which pushed me even further inside myself, whittling down my confidence to the bare minimum needed to survive on a daily basis, and you’ve got yourself one cowardly boy! And yet, when the circumstances require it, even the shyest, most introvert individual can surprise. And nobody was more surprised than me, on that particular Friday night!
It all started when I noticed the chap wandering around the store with a handbag on his shoulder. He had a rather noisy female accomplice, and I doubt the bag would have looked any better on her, truth be told. I was on the till, serving a customer, but a screen above my head gave me a clear view of the meat isle – a regular target for the common garden thief. I glanced away for a few seconds to carry on serving, but when I looked again, I saw the young fellow crouched down, stuffing as many pork joints as he could fit into the capacious handbag (unfortunately, I was unable to discern the brand-name of the bag, but I’m sure Mary Poppins had one similar). This was when I was faced with a dilemma. What should I do? I had seconds to think, before this thief would make it out with a good load of fresh meat.
The first thing I did was call for a supervisor over the tannoy. I did it in a calm, relaxed way, as I felt that screaming, “MEAT ISLE, MEAT ISLE, CODE 10, I REPEAT: CODE 10!” might have pressured the pork-rustler into a premature exit. The problem with my announcement was that, because my call seemed innocent and lacking in urgency, the supervisor probably wouldn’t have come running to my aide in a matter of seconds. So I nailed the sod myself.
“Sorry, gotta go – shoplifter!” I said to my customer (in my head, that moment sounds so cool, but I’ve no idea how I actually delivered the line), before hurling her three-pounds change onto the till (she was a regular, she was fine about it). I darted as fast as I could to the meat isle, in time to catch the chap loading up his handbag.
“I think you ought to put that meat back,” I said, wanting to be as threatening and terrifying as I could, but actually managing to sound rather awkward about the whole thing.
Despite his protests, he did so, emptying the contents onto the floor, before picking them up and, rather kindly I thought, putting them back onto the shelf. I then asked to see inside the bag, to make sure there wasn’t anything else in there, and as he showed me, he gave me quite possibly the worst excuse I had ever heard. Apparently, he was loading up the handbag full of meat because he didn’t have a basket to hand, and had no intention of stealing any of it.
For me, this excuse fell down for a number of key reasons:
It would have been so easy to go to the front of the shop and pick up a basket.
At 7:45 in the evening, who would want to buy seven joints of pork?
Literally inches away from where the thief had been kneeling down, were three perfectly good baskets, patiently waiting to be filled up.
My sarcasm levels were very low at that point, so I decided not to draw the shoplifter’s attention to the above. Instead, I just escorted him out of the shop, before marching back over to the till, where a few of my colleagues and some customers were staring at the security screen, watching my moment of heroism. I’ll be honest, it felt pretty good.
Perhaps the biggest deal for me was that the shoplifter had been quite close to my age. It brought back all those years of being bullied by people in my own year group, and reminded me of the fact that I never stood up to any of them. It was as if those five years of hell had suddenly been righted by my confrontation with the would-be thief – a confrontation that I won. A tiny moment of glory, perhaps, but a moment of glory nonetheless.
This wasn’t, however, strictly speaking my first one-to-one confrontation with a shoplifter. No, the first encounter occurred some three or four years ago, when I wasn’t even at work. It was a day off, but I was popping in to see a friend and colleague. While I was there, I noticed was a guy, maybe three times bigger than me with a great big scar running down his face, shoving a bottle of Ribena into his coat pocket. Despite not being at work, despite being four years more cowardly than I am today, and despite the fact that he could have killed me with a flick of his index finger, I was too stubborn to let it go.
As he stood there gazing at the pop fridge, perhaps wondering what else to pinch, or possibly trying to remember where he was, I carefully sidled up beside him.
“Listen,” I said, conspiratorially, “We’ve all just seen you put that bottle of Ribena in your pocket. It’s on the cameras, you know…”
“Yeah?” he grunted, evidently bladdered, which increased my chances of a broken nose 100%.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to figure out where I was going with this, “And the thing is, the police get called straight away if we get a shoplifter in…”
I couldn’t tell if he was contemplating my words, or just drifting in and out of consciousness as he swayed from side to side. His glazed, emotionless expression revealed nothing.
“Is it really worth going to prison, just for the sake of a bottle of Ribena?” I added.
Is it really worth getting your face smashed in for the sake of a bottle of Ribena? a voice in my head unhelpfully chipped-in.
What happened after that is a bit of blur today, perhaps because at the time I was too busy worrying about being laid-out in my workplace, on my day off. But by God, he put the Ribena back. He even had a chat with me about something. I couldn’t tell what he was mumbling about. It might have been the state of the economy, how he felt about the latest series of Doctor Who…or perhaps he was just telling me that he’d had too much to drink and needed a place to vomit. Needless to say, he left the shop without stealing a thing, and it was all because I was polite to him.
This is a good message to give out, I feel, and one which had saved my bacon many-a-time during the ‘bully years’. So the next time you’re faced with a confrontation, whatever it may be, give politeness a try. Use your manners, smile, be firm but reasonable. And if that doesn’t work, just go apeshit. You can’t win ’em all.