IN AMERICA: The secret world of shopping

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The Independent Culture
I WAS in Barney's with a friend the other day, when I saw someone shoplifting. My friend and I were in the middle of an argument. We had just come from the Museum of Modern Art where we had been to see Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman. A minute or so before the lights had gone down in the tiny Moma auditorium, my friend had run into this film critic - a man who, my friend has been telling me for weeks, is destined to be my husband. After the movie, the man came for a coffee with us and t hen he accompanied us uptown on the subway. So it was only once we were in Barney's that we had a chance to discuss the whole episode.

"You think he is my Mr Right?" I said, as soon as we had wooshed in through the swing doors. "I am so offended."

"What?" my friend said. "What? He's a great guy. A little anally retentive, perhaps, but..."

"Anally retentive?" I said. "The man folded his plastic coffee spoon into three, and wrapped it in a napkin, before throwing it away!"

"So?" my friend said. "He's smart. He's good looking. He wears really cool clothes..."

"What are you talking about? He was wearing a beret. Do you think I would even contemplate a man who wore a beret?"

"The beret wasn't great," my friend admitted. "But that was the first time I've seen him wearing it." He started to laugh. And it was at that moment that I saw, from out of the corner of my eye, a little woman in a camel-hair coat, slipping two Annick Goutal perfume testers into her handbag.

Stealing perfume testers is pretty low-rent shoplifting, it has to be said. But the po-faced way this woman plopped them into her bag and sauntered away was exciting none the less. When I was eight, I stole sweets every day, for a period of about six months, from a newsagent in Primrose Hill called AR Pino's. I used to steal these really disgusting things called Toffee Strips and secrete them in the lining of the blue cape that my mother was making me wear at the time. (Me: "But no one wears capes." My mother: "Put the frigging cape on.") Toffee Strips weren't my confection of choice: they were just the cheapest thing in the store (1p), and in my imbecilic, eight-year-old way I thought the chances of being caught were less if I stuck to filching crappysweets. Stealing something classy like a Cadbury's Creme Egg or a Flake was way beyond my ken. Just thinking about Mars Bars induced a flop sweat.

Anyway, one day I decided to expand my territory a little and I went down the road to another newsagent called Haskin's. I'd stuffed away about 20 Toffee Strips and was halfway out the shop, when I heard a voice - Mr Haskin's voice - calling after me. I thought about running, but I was too chicken, and the next thing I knew, Mr Haskin was looming over me, demanding to see the contents of my cape.

He rang my mother and made her come round to get me. I remember him saying to her, "Sometimes, you get a child with a big problem" - he made a gesture with his hands, like he was stretching an elastic band - "and other times, it's a little problem." The invisible elastic band got smaller. This was the final humiliation: if I was going to have a problem, couldn't I at least have a big one? Then Mr Haskin gave me this totally nauseating lecture about how I wouldn't like it if he came into my room and stole one of my dollies, would I? And I stood there, this haughty little eight-year-old criminal, thinking, "Please don't call them `dollies' - what do you think I am, some kind of moron?"

Luckily, my mother thought my venality was a result of my being disturbed by her and my father getting divorced, so she didn't totally beat up on me. She beat up on me enough to stop me from ever shoplifting again, though. All through adolescence, I sta y ed clean. I got to be so nerdily honest that once, when a girlfriend of my father's stole a bunch of stuff for me and my brother and sisters in a Mexico City department store, I went and told my father about it. (This girlfriend - a former Miss Ecuador, called Christa - was pretty crazy. She made her own bikinis out of little crocheted triangles, tied together with curtain rings. Once, for a Sunday walk in Chepultapec Park, she wore a pair of short, short denim hotpants and 4in platforms, customised wit h little stick-on gold and silver stars. The park was full of nice Catholic families out for a Sunday stroll, and when they saw Christa, they all stopped dead. One man stared so hard at her that he fell into a fountain.) Anyway, my dad freaked out when I grassed about the shoplifting and we wound up not being allowed to keep any of the ill-gotten goods. Thereafter, I lost interest in my George- Washington-and-the-cherry-tree schtick.

The other day, when I saw the woman ferret away the Annick Goutal at Barney's, I was all for following her and observing her legerdemain more closely. But my friend wouldn't hear of it. He wanted to go and check out cufflinks in the men's department. It

was here that we ran into another friend of his - this tall, athletic type in a cashmere sweater. "Now, he was cute," I said, when we had said goodbye to the man and were walking away. My friend shook his head, despairingly. "You are so screwed up," he said. "You are so stoopid. You will never succeed with men. You know who that was? That was my drug dealer, for God's sake."

Postscript: this is my last column. A happy 1995 to you all.