When I lived in Columbus (that's Georgia, not Ohio), I subscribed to the local newspaper, the Ledger-Enquirer.
There was one columnist who quickly gained me as a loyal reader. She was plain-spoken and funny in a bemused, almost cynical sort of way. She had the down-home sensibilities of Celestine Sibley and the snarky funny bone of Dorothy Parker. Unfortunately, her name has been swallowed up in the mists of 35 years and my sometimes unreliable memory.
One day I read a Ledger-Enquirer news report about a woman who had been arrested for shoplifting in a local grocery store. She had eaten two grapes in the produce department. Two grapes. A detective from the Columbus Police Department was working part-time as a store security guard. He immediately arrested the woman for shoplifting.
The next day, my favorite columnist weighed in. She wrote of going to the store, plucking two grapes from a bunch and attempting to pay for them. The clerk looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. Scales can't register something that light. So if you can't pay, how's it shoplifting?
Finally, someone up the corporate ladder came to their senses and dropped the charges.
I think of that case sometimes when I'm shopping for fruit. Any produce manager will tell you the only way to determine if grapes are sweet, not sour, is to taste them. Our girls have that Columbus store detective to thank for the family rule stating, "One is tasting, two is stealing."
Last month I read a news report from Hawaii. A couple and their 2-year-old had gone shopping at the local Safeway. The mom was 30 weeks pregnant and had what we here in the South call a sinking spell. She felt weak and helped herself to a deli sandwich. Her husband had one as well. They ate while they shopped and stowed the wrappers in the cart, planning to pay when they checked out. Big mistake.
At the check-out, they paid for $50 worth of groceries but neglected to purchase the sandwiches. They say they simply forgot. The store wasn't having any of it.
The couple was arrested for shoplifting and their child was sent to foster care overnight.
Predictably, once the story hit the news, store officials reversed the decision to press charges. Associated Press reported: "Karl Schroeder, a Safeway Inc. division president, called Nicole Leszczynski (the pregnant woman) on Tuesday, and ‘apologized for what she's been through,' (company spokeswoman Susan) Houghton said.
"Houghton said management followed routine shoplifting procedure by contacting police, but Safeway regrets not foreseeing that doing so would cause a child to be separated from her parents.‘We want to do the right thing here,' Houghton said. ‘Families are important to us.'"
That's the problem with one-size-fits-all policies. They seldom really fit all.
That's what I thought, anyway. If I'd been the manager, I would have asked them to pay for the sandwiches and graciously accepted their embarrassed apologies. I felt this was certainly a case that deserved the benefit of the doubt. Then I read the online commentary.
There are some scary people out there. Over and over, they blasted Safeway for backing down and dropping charges. To them there's no gray area, no consideration for simple human forgetfulness and error.
Oh no, this was a theft and it should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The further I scrolled, the more it became an issue of what the writers labeled "liberal" attitudes. They felt this had caused the store to give in to pressure and reverse its stance.
If by "liberal" they mean sensible, rational and compassionate, then please tar me with that brush.
It's one thing to be caught with a false-bottomed purse full of flat iron steaks. It's an entirely different scenario when a frazzled parent fails to notice a couple of wrappers shoved in the grocery cart's child seat next to a squirming toddler who's begging for M&Ms.
I own a business and I deal with theft on a daily basis. I've had a shopper hide jeans underneath her baby in a stroller. I've had people switch tags. One woman came in on several occasions to swap out her nasty old shoes for our like-new ones and then sashay out the door.
These are cases I have no problem prosecuting. But when a mom gets to the car before she realizes that her little guy has one of our stuffed animals in his hand, or tries on a bracelet and then gets distracted by a crying infant and forgets to remove it, that's not theft, that's just life. Messy, unpredictable, embarrassing life.
Policies are supposed to be guidelines and stores are supposed to hire personnel with common sense and the ability to make judgements based not just on the rules but on the individual situation as well.
When they don't, that's when people get locked up for tasting the grapes.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.