This is my brother’s story and, like many telling stories, it’s small. Tim lives in Iowa, as our mother’s family did. Its rolling hills, panoramic skies and cornfields stippling to the horizon exude what I can only call wholesomeness. This is a place that produces not simply words, ideas or transient technologies, but tangible commodities that keep the human race alive at scale. Historically, Iowans have been friendly, open and guileless; farmers have tended to look out for one another. However much coastal urbanites may disdain the rubes who raise the cattle feed for their sirloins, this classic flyover country should harbor the true moral heart of America, were such a thing to remain anywhere. But maybe it doesn’t remain anywhere.
When Tim pointed out that one wine box wasn’t paid for, the slovenly, apathetic greeter was visibly put out
Like me, Tim is congenitally frugal (thanks, Mom). For big shops, it’s Walmart, whose sprawling discount outlets make up for their grim ambience with low prices. Despite the locale, Iowan Walmarts have a problem with shoplifting, even if retail theft hasn’t grown as brazen and rampant as it has become in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Thus a “greeter” positioned at the exit is meant to check the customers’ receipts to confirm they’ve paid for their goods. Yet the gate-keeping is often lackluster.
Having just completed a shop to prepare for my visit last month, before heading for the parking garage my brother ran a ritual glance down his receipt to make sure he hadn’t been overcharged for anything, only to discover that in fact he’d underpaid. The checkout clerk had rung up only one of the two boxes of red table wine in his cart. As the greeter had already waved him through to the exit, Tim had a split second to decide whether to call attention to the error or proceed to his car. Were he to sail through the door, he’d be $22.50 richer, with no one the wiser. After all, the oversight wasn’t his own. But sometimes our having been brought up in a Protestant household will out.
When Tim pointed out that one wine box wasn’t paid for, the slovenly, apathetic greeter was visibly put out, if not disgusted. My brother was spannering — sorry, throwing a monkey wrench in — the smooth workings of another ho-hum afternoon, and any customer who didn’t cash in on such a windfall was an idiot. The greeter warned that if Tim insisted on paying for the uncharged wine, he’d have to queue for checkout again — rather, get back in line.
The shop was busy, Tim’s time short. But he duly U-turned the cart to join the long line at the checkout he’d been through earlier. When he explained the error at the cash register, the clerk was laconic and blasé. The young man neither acknowledged his own mistake nor apologized for putting the customer to extra trouble, much less compliment my brother on his probity. Both the clerk and the greeter were perfectly uninterested in ensuring their corporate employer was properly compensated for its wares. Both employees seemed to find my brother’s honesty an annoyance.
As for the lesson of this minor anecdote, we might conclude that by his sixties my brother should upgrade to wine that comes in actual bottles. Or we might conclude that his rectitude is dated — because it is. He inherited that habit of reviewing receipts from our mother, who was proud of the fact that she always alerted the clerk to a mischarge or incorrect change, even when doing so was to her disadvantage.
As Julie Burchill confessed last week, I too went through a brief period of penny-ante adolescent shoplifting (I was twelve). Unlike Ms. Burchill, I was never caught. Granted, stealing entailed a wayward thrill, but after a few months the adrenal rush wasn’t worth the guilt. Every trinket I lifted acquired a taint; I vividly remember a string of ill-got blue-and-white beads radiating such a miasma of corruption — aka shame — that I never wore them. That feeling of having done something wrong was planted deeply enough that it was beyond me to uproot it. Like it or not, I had been socialized — not a word we employ often anymore, since as far as I can tell, in the broader-than-dinner-party sense, we’re not doing much socializing, either.
Neither worker at that Walmart evidenced any moral engagement with this interchange whatsoever. The “right thing to do” didn’t enter the equation. In kind, the rash of shoplifting ravaging retail in the US is conspicuously shameless. True, we’ve always been saddled with a ruthless sub-population whose rapacity can only be constrained by the threat of punishment, so when the police don’t enforce the law these folks will run riot. Yet, intensified by BLM looting and Covid lockdowns, which not only un-toilet-trained toddlers but instigated a weird social regression in adults, something is slipping on a grander scale. The moral slippage can’t all be due to the retreat of religiosity. Parents can instill a shared cultural ethic in their children without a formal catechism.
We may be obsessed with pronouns and what to call minorities this week, but the old-fashioned virtue of internalizing “thou shalt not steal” increasingly seems the ball and chain of suckers. In an atomized, fractured social landscape, what matters is how much individuals can get away with — how much can be successfully extracted from government or commerce for one’s personal benefit, everyone else be hanged. With arrays of undefended desirable goods on display, retail can function only when most customers have registered profoundly that stealing merchandise is shameful. The widespread decline of scruples may make the ploy ineffective, but that’s why some self-checkouts have a mirror behind the scanner: can you look yourself in the eye? My throwback brother must have had installed a gut horror of thieving by the age of four. Maybe it’s my imagination, but that box wine seemed to taste a touch more refined for having been bought.