(Originally published in the San Diego Reader February 14, 2015.)
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.”