My apparently glacial middle-class existence was shattered today; leading me plunging through barriers I never knew existed and thrusting me into a decadent life of crime.
As mixed as those metaphors may be, they weren’t as mixed as the fruit salad I saw the woman in Sainsbury’s steal. Brazenly browsing the aisle, past the cream slices but not yet into the fizzy pop, she plucked an item that I could only define by its subsequent absence on the shelf, and placed it inside her coat.
Jokes aside, it was weird. Weirder still was that I didn’t do anything about it.
Firstly, I think she was stealing. I’m not sure. I didn’t see her take the item off the shelf and put it in her pocket. Officer. But you know when you get that vibe that something just happened that you weren’t supposed to see? Yeah. I got that.
But there was enough doubt in my head though to not want to tell anyone, lest I got it wrong. What if SWAT descended through the ceiling, abseiling ropes on the attack, only to find she’d just been putting her phone back in her pocket?
Secondly, there was a child with her. I guess it was her child (unless she stole that too, and that would be on an altogether different level of crime indeed). And if she was stealing, and it was her child, then maybe I perceive that differently. Stealing a treat for your child is different, on the moral scale, to stealing diamonds and flogging them to drug dealers, no?
I live in the city and see so much wealth, and so much poverty. You realize the fine dividing line between these apparently disparate groups. You understand that sometimes people need a little help.
Thirdly, the security guard. It was only when I got home that I thought maybe I’ve screwed him over by not telling him. Maybe his bosses will ask him why he didn’t apprehend the woman? Why are thefts in the store up?
Whilst this is undoubtedly a prime example of middle-class liberal white guilt (probably sponsored by The Guardian and a bespoke farm marmalade, extra chunky), two things about the whole thing fascinate me.
One, that the brain can size up a situation and extrapolate such depth from what was a glance of under one second in duration. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not; you could certainly go crazy by over thinking things.
Two, that all people sit within a certain implied structure of social behaviour. This behaviour set is pretty much imposed on us. No-one really wants to stick their head above the parapet and stand out.
A similar thing happened to me a few weeks back. Walking through town I notice a man walking towards me. An odd angle. Something seemed off. My girlfriend pulls me quietly, but markedly, away. She tells me that the guy was about to pick pocket me.
Looking at him as he walks past me, I see he’s wearing a walky-talky. He’s presumably pretty pro as a thief, and working in tandem with some form of spotter. Yet I don’t say anything. Why? I mean, of all the situations, surely that is the one to shout: “HEY EVERYONE, THIS GUY IS A THIEF. WATCH YOUR BAGS.” No?
But you feel that implied behavioural structure. Flip that situation around and if someone started shouting that, I’d probably just think they were a crazy shouting man.
People are weird creatures, myself included.