Alyssa Jones (not her real name) and I are five minutes or so into my visit to her Point Loma home one afternoon when she self-diagnoses, “I’m a kleptomaniac.”
We’re perched on adjacent couches in one of two living rooms in Jones’s 2600-square-foot home, including four bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a lovely backyard. The current Zillow estimate of her home is just over $1 million. Today, the stay-at-home mom wears a black shirt smeared here and there with milky gray spit-up stains. Her three-year-old daughter sits in a tiny chair by the coffee table eating popcorn and clementine sections. Her three-month-old son rests in a bouncy chair on the floor. Alyssa bounces the chair with her foot while she explains herself to me.
“I steal diapers, drinks, whatever. I got a toaster oven once. I think I got a blender. I don’t know. Just anything that fits at the bottom of the cart,” she says. “They never look at the bottom of the cart. But if they do, I’ll just say, ‘Oh, my gosh. Sorry. Totally forgot.”
So far, no one has ever stopped her.
I ask Jones to start at the beginning, so she goes back to her pre-teen days when she got in the habit of pilfering jewelry, makeup, maybe a pair of shoes here and there. But that phase, she says, didn’t last long.
“I guess it [ended] when I was a-r-r-e-s-t-e-d in seventh or eighth grade,” she says, spelling it out for the sake of her three-year-old daughter who, I have noticed, is in the parrot phase of her life. “My friend handed me a pair of sunglasses and I put them in my bag.”
The details of the arrest include an undercover officer, a paddy wagon, a police station, and ultimately, the disappointment of her parents. The incident never went on Alyssa’s record because the sunglasses had no tag, and she convinced the authorities that when she put them in her bag, she thought they belonged to her friend.
Still, she suffered enough consequences to scare her into quitting. At least for a couple of decades.
“That kind of ended my career,” she says.
After a pause, I ask, “Until when?”
She laughs. And then, after a few start-and-stop half-sentences that begin with, “I mean,” and “Well, I guess,” she comes out and says, “I hate to say this, but after having kids and not working anymore and having a real cash shortage.”
Her voice drops almost to a whisper when she says the word “kids.”
Jones doesn’t specifically remember the first time she stole from the neighborhood Target (“I mean, it was numerous times”), but she swears she didn’t go in intending to do so.
“I think it was probably, like, a dawning on me at the register where I could just pull up and just try it,” she says. “There’s a bunch of stuff on the bottom of the cart and they’re not coming around to check, and I’m just paying for the stuff on the top.”
So she did it once. Then she did it again. And then again.
“I just kept it consistent. I put all the big stuff at the bottom, all the drinks, like a case of beer, a jug of milk, or any big box item that would fit under there. Usually as much as I could get down there,” she says. “Then it just became a regular thing where I would look for the register with the most” her voice drops again “fuck-off looking person there.”
Jones’s daughter has finished eating. She stands up from her tiny seat, approaches me, and, with her face upturned, asks, “Where’s my colors?”
After we spend a moment looking for her “colors,” we find a container of markers under the coloring book on the coffee table. Smiling, the little girl takes the container and wanders off to another room. The baby bounces drowsily in his chair.
I ask Jones what she means by the most “fuck-off” person.
“I mean, for example, I wouldn’t go to an older woman,” she says. “I’d go to a teenage kid or the person who looks like they care the least.”
She estimates she’s been doing this for two years or so. When I ask how long it was between the first time she did it and when it became a regular occurrence that she would enter the store intending to steal, she’s quick to say, “I never go in with the intent to steal.”
“So, you just do your regular shopping, and then you assess whether or not it’s feasible once you get to the register?”
“But while you’re shopping, you’re putting stuff on the bottom of the cart?”
“Yes,” she says. “But…”
Then, realizing she has contradicted herself, she starts laughing.
“There was even this one time when a manager-looking person with a walkie talkie was standing right in front, and I was, like, ‘Oh, I’d better not.’ But then she walked off. And there was another woman, and I don’t know if I was just paranoid... I mean, I’m always, like, Who’s watching? but I felt like that woman was looking up and down between me and the bottom of my cart.”
She emphasizes by acting it out, her eyes jumping between my face and my knees.
“And I still did it,” she says with a tone of incredulity, “because the register person was clueless. I was having a conversation with them, and they were like, ‘Lalalala, okay, thanks, bye!’”
She inhales deeply and raises her eyebrows.
“That was high risk,” she says. “I probably should not have done that.”
I ask if she enjoyed the thrill of that high risk moment and she begins to answer with a long, drawn-out, “Uuuuuuummmm...” before admitting, “Yeah, I’d have to say yes. Because I always come home and I’m, like, ‘James, look what I did!’”
James is her husband.
“Oh, so this is not a big secret?” I ask.
“No, but I mean, I wouldn’t tell anyone else,” she says.
She adds. laughing, “except for somebody who’s going to publish it in the Reader.”
I ask if she has a psychological analysis of why she might be taking these risks.
She’s quick to tell me, no, she has no analysis.
“We’re just strapped for cash,” she says. “I don’t think I would have been doing this if it wasn’t so tight for us. I mean, it’s major savings.” After a few minutes’ thought, Jones explains that she once had a four-or-five-year a relationship with a Mr. Moneybags who gave her access to a luxurious life I’ve heard her mourn on more than one occasion. Today, yes, she lives in a nice home, shops at Whole Foods, and vacations occasionally, but that other life was made of international first-class travel, furs, and the kind of shopping that does not require looking at prices.
She stops bouncing the fat baby in his chair. He’s fast asleep. She lies back on the couch, props a pillow under her head, laughs, and says she’s ready for my analysis.
I go back to the Mr. Moneybags thing and ask if she thinks the loss of all the promise that relationship held (materially speaking) could be connected to her self-diagnosed kleptomania.
“Yeah,” she says as if it’s an obvious question. “I mean, I think it’s just… wanting to have more.”
The toddler wanders back into the room and climbs up on the couch at her mom’s feet. “I want airplane,” she says in a quiet voice. “I want airplane. I want airplane.”
But Jones doesn’t seem to hear the girl. She’s busy contemplating my question about how “strapped for cash” she can actually be when she says she’s just returned from a three-day weekend in Napa Valley.
“We are strapped for cash,” she says. “We’re living off of James’s paychecks, which are gone in three days, and then we have a week and a half until the next paycheck. We did Napa on credit, and we’re trying to catch up from that. We’re just always a little bit behind it. But, no, it’s not destitute. We’re not on skid row.”
She admits it wasn’t for lack that caused her to steal the rosemary-scented soap she took from an airplane bathroom over the summer. That was more of an “I like it, and I want it” moment.
“There is an element of seeing what I can get away with,” she says. “Maybe I’m just too bored in my life. I need some action, some thrills and spills.”
She follows with a weak giggle that sounds almost sarcastic.
“Just kidding,” she says. “But, yeah. I have always been a little naughty, and once you get older, there’s no excuse for the ways you [got your kicks] when you were younger. Because now I’m married, and I can’t have visits with the postman, so to speak. I mean, previously to being married, I probably cheated on every boyfriend I ever had. And that was because of the thrill.”
She talks for a few minutes about being a bad girl living a happy domestic life. Then she goes back to the money thing.
“I want to be able to spend freely and not, when I’m in the grocery store, have to comparison shop. Just having a little bit of extra padding, regularly. That would be fine,” she says, sitting up on her elbows for emphasis. “Which I can do if I just go out and get a job, but I mean, if you’re going to pay somebody for decent child care today, it’s $15 an hour. And that’s at least $30,000 a year. At my last job, I made $36,000. So how would I justify that? It means I have to find a job where I’m making at least $60,000. But jobs in my field don’t pay that in San Diego. So, what am I going to do? I’m going to have to do something I’d be miserable at, and I don’t want to be miserable.”
Jones says she plans to stop stealing. This past December, she began by not stealing her Christmas tree. In 2013, she stole her tree from the neighborhood Rite Aid.
“There’s nobody there. You have to go inside and ask, ‘Is there anybody working at the trees?’ The security guard is the one that’s helping,” she says. “So, I’m parked out front. He helps me load up, and he’s like, ‘Okay, there you go. You’re all set.’ Last year, I was, like, ‘Okay, thanks a lot,’ and I drove off.”
But this year, she paid.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I don’t think I should be doing it anymore,” she says. “I just don’t think I should. I mean, it’s Christmas.”
This makes us both laugh again.
But, seriously, I ask, what exactly is making her want to stop. Is it the fear of getting caught? Is it karma? What?
“It’s just not good. I don’t want to an be immoral person,” she says. And then after a beat, “I think maybe I’m realizing that my reasoning isn’t very sound. We’re not destitute. It’s not skid row. And I’m realizing that even though things are super tight, we’re always managing. So, a $20 tree here or there isn’t going to put me over the edge, so why don’t I just pay for it?”
What about the fear of getting caught?
“Yeah, that would be bad,” she says.
But then she recounts a sitcom episode she remembers from childhood.
“I think it was Diff’rent Strokes, and Mr. Drummond’s sister came to visit and she had this problem. There’s a scene where she’s in a store and she’s looking all around and putting stuff in her bag. And she gets caught, and it’s this family issue: ‘Aunt Josie has a problem.’”
She finger-quotes “problem” and, laughing, adds, “I don’t want to be Aunt Josie. I think I should have worked that out of my system in seventh grade.”
I suggest to Jones that she might want to refrain from pulling off another heist at Target. “I know,” she responds, “That’s what I was thinking,” she says. “What if the CFO of Target is, like, ‘People are getting away with this, and we have to crack down.’ Then you’re ruining my gig with this story.”
She laughs again.
“Right,” I say. “But you want to stop.”
“Yeah, I do,” she says. “But you might be ruining it for other people.”
Jones laughs, this time with enough force to startle the baby awake. She reaches one foot down to bounce his chair and his eyes close again.
“I think you might be Aunt Josie,” I say.
“I might be,” she says. “But I can stop anytime.”