“Undercover” — Conversations over Stolen Food, Pt. 2 of 4


We (Jon Cotner, Andy Fitch) recorded forty-five-minute conversations for thirty straight days around New York City. Half these talks took place at a Union Square health-food store which, for legal reasons, we call “W.F.” Other locations included MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera House, Central Park, Prospect Park, and a Tribeca parking garage. This piece comes from the end of the first conversation.

7:43 p.m. Friday, December 29
Union Square W.F.

A: If we eat things before we exit can no one call…catch us? There’s habeas corpus but there’s something else. Body of evidence? Doesn’t physical evidence need to exist of the event? So long as we consume all evidence perhaps nothing can be done to us.

J: Yeah, I guess we’ve created a body of evidence, but only we ourselves will listen to this tape, and, what’s more, I’ve become friends with the security guards. They know me by first name, as I know them by first name. Today I spoke to…

A: Don’t. You don’t want to get them in trouble.

J: Tonight we shared reintroductions. Tonight’s my first time in this store for several months and I shook a lot of hands. It felt warm. It’s nice to be welcomed back.

A: Now could you explain what happened in Providence?

J: You mean…

A: Inside its W.F.?

J: Well I have to admit: the desire to keep my living expenses low became reckless. I would carry into the store a bag, a plastic bag from W.F., and I’d place it in the cart and, as I’d shop, I’d place things in the bag, and I’d place of course many many groceries outside the bag, but there were certain items, certain expensive items, that I’d place in the bag—such as sirloin steaks and blueberries (for a while they cost 5.99 a carton). I’d drink an expensive ginseng tea. There was this hot sauce I’d steal, pure extravagance of course and I knew I had turned sloppy, yet I knew…

A: You know the thief’s main virtue is modesty? A modest thief never…

J: That’s right.

A: I’m guessing. I’m guessing.

J: You’re right. And I was modest tonight in stealing my my steamed broccoli and shredded carrots and brown rice, which tastes unnecessarily salted, and that explains why I keep drinking water. You’d think a place committed to health wouldn’t salt foods so excessively.

A: So what happened? So?

J: So just as I left the store an undercover guard blocked my passage. He said Excuse me; I’d like to speak with you inside. And I looked at him and said I don’t know what you’re talking about. And he said Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about? I said No I don’t. And he said You left the store with unpaid merchandise. And I said What? And he pointed to the bag containing my wrapped sirloin, which cost twenty dollars, and said I’ve worked in this business six years—get inside. The manager stood waiting for me, totally baffled, since we were likewise on a first-name basis, and after previous episodes of stealing (in an effort to keep expenses down) I would treat him with lots of affection: shaking his hands, wishing him a good night, telling him I’d see him real soon. He led me into an office, where he did not press charges. He firmly believed I was confused. That became the story; I’d got confused. I said I’d started talking with the cashier about her necklace. She wore this charm made of imitation gold which spelled her name in cursive and…

A: Hmm, I saw one on this woman sweeping. If you can read the name I’m curious. It looked very long, like Florestan.

J: Florestan, is that right?

A: But the necklace hangs backwards, so you’ll have to read backwards. But sorry go ahead.

J: Yes. I said I got confused: I’d asked about a girl’s necklace. I said I’ll pack my groceries apart from my roommate’s since she’s vegetarian. I said I myself used to be a vegetarian, and know what it’s like. I said I’d just started eating meat again and just got confused. And the manager kept nodding with a blank expression, neither agreeing nor disagreeing while the undercover processed the paperwork. I said Can’t we talk about this? The guard said No. He snapped my photo and said If you ever step into another W.F. you could be arrested on the spot. I started thinking of this project, not wanting to jeopardize it, yet of course didn’t say anything. It’s not like I could have said Oh but sir, come two months from now I’ve planned conversations over stolen food with my friend Andy.

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