Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

A few nights ago—early morning, actually—a friend of mine had a good-sized ceramic pot stolen from his front stoop, one of a matched pair. Neighbors coming home in the small hours surprised the thief before he could get the other one onto his truck. The slamming of the tailgate woke Charles up, but by the time he had got his bathrobe on and got out the front door, the guy was gone. The small bush that had been in the pot was, says Charles, “lying like a crime victim in the yard.”

Why do people steal? I know that sounds like a very dumb question. Usually they want what they see or they want the money they can get when they fence what they see. These pots had cost about sixty dollars a piece, and a pot isn’t a good candidate for fencing, not like a stereo or a laptop or a set of mag wheels. It would probably, adds Charles, bring about three bucks at a yard sale. No, my guess is that this guy drove by Charles’s house a few times, took a fancy to the pots, and decided that they should be his. For free. Just like that.

The story has stuck with me because it would never occur to me to take something that didn’t belong to me. Ok, maybe office supplies, a couple of memo pads. Maybe photocopying personal stuff on the machine in the workroom. I am not trying to sound holier than thou. But to steal a pot right off somebody’s front stoop, even if the chances of getting caught are almost nil? No way. It simply would not occur to me to do so, and you can call me deeply naive to wonder why other people aren’t such moral paragons as I. You could point out that Shea can probably afford a pair of sixty dollar pots if he really wants them. Well, I’ll bet that this guy could afford the pots, too, but (he reasoned) why spend money when you don’t have to? I read somewhere that in landscaping public places it is expected that a certain percentage of the trees and plants will be dug up and carted off under cover of night. The replacement cost might even be factored into the estimate.

Theft. To steal, which is a stealthy act (yes, the words are cognate). To take the property of another without his permission or knowledge. To rob (or mug), if you accost a fellow directly (“Your money or your life,” in the old Jack Benny joke). To burgle or burglarize, if you sneak into his house, hoping he isn’t home. To pilfer. To filch. Pilfering is to stealing as fibbing is to lying, and with some justification: pilfering and filching imply the theft of small things (so-called “petty theft”), things of little value. Like those memo pads. And we have euphemisms for stealing, like “Midnight Auto Supply,” and, for shoplifting, the five-finger discount.

I suppose that most of us at least try to justify these acts in our own minds. If I purloin a ream of paper, I can tell myself that it won’t really be missed, that such losses are figured into my company’s budget, that they actually expect me to help myself (!), or that my pay is so niggardly that I deserve this perk to make up for it. For larger items I can maintain that I am redistributing the wealth (like that famous felon, Robin Hood). My misappropriation is actually a social good! I am in the vanguard of the revolution! In the 1960s we didn’t talk about stealing things, we talked about liberating them, which I always thought a brilliant stroke of rhetoric. Like Jean Valjean, some people do have to steal to eat. More often these days they steal to support a drug habit. Some people filch stuff for the thrill of getting away with something, literally and figuratively.

Then there is kleptomania, a recognized mental disorder in which a person simply cannot control the impulse to steal even if she has little use for the stolen items and could easily afford to pay for them. This is pilferage usually, often shoplifting. It typically starts during adolescence and affects more women than men. Psychologists are still debating causes and cures.

Thieves don’t expect to get caught, but the guy who stole that pot would have to make restitution and would probably get a suspended sentence, especially if it was his first offense. In some cultures, even today, he could get a hand chopped off. In Merry Olde (Tudor) England, he would have been hanged. By the eighteenth century the laws were not quite so draconian: he would have been transported to Australia, the world’s largest penal colony, where he would spend the rest of his natural life.

“Who steals my purse steals trash,” says Iago. Yeah, well. Whatever. Charles and his wife have replaced the ceramic pots (I hope they put the remaining one out of harm’s way) with cheap plastic ones. A big fan of irony, Charles has fastened them to the cement with Liquid Nails.

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