Bouncer: Reaffirming the Social Contract at Cotter's Corner

Cotter's Corner is a dive that sits at the corner of Cotter and Mission streets in the Excelsior. By most accounts, there is never anyone inside, which might explain why the bartender bent over backward to accommodate our party of five recently. She seemed positively giddy to have the business, and as a result, we felt like we were in the bar at the Ritz. After Budweisers were ordered, she carefully refilled each glass after it had reached the halfway mark, like a diligent waiter. The place looks like every other dive in S.F., which means it basically contains an old, wooden bar surrounded by neon beer signs and TVs. These are the places I like to call BDDs — booze delivery depots. The people who populate them are there solely to increase the alcohol content in their blood. They are not there to pick up chicks, chat up the bartender, or write the Great American Novel. The bars are not kitschy enough to attract hipsters, and they are not sleazy enough to attract bottom feeders. They just are, and the only thing that separates them from one another is the personality of each proprietor.

Two of our posse were still recovering from a bad hangover from a 30th birthday party the week before, so they opted to share a beer; the rest drank Jamesons and the aforementioned Buds. Initially we all sat at the bar, but we had a hard time hearing one another, so we opted to move to a back table. Before you could say “liar's dice,” the bartender had run out from behind the bar to pull out the table and offer us seats. I almost gave her my wrap, but instead laid it behind my chair.

The only other customer in the place was a middle-aged Brit who stuffed the jukebox with classic rock and Motown. He did, however, pick the Bee Gees' “I Started a Joke,” which more than made up for his poor selections of CCR and the O'Jays.

Once we were all assembled, it didn't take long for the conversation to switch to a subject that has always fascinated me: shoplifting. An old friend of mine was a chronic thief, so much so that she was in danger of being deported for it. I would marvel at the things she would bring home: designer bags, expensive French facial cleanser, and bags of clothes. She would steal from anyone, and had no thievery “code”— such as, for instance, that you should not steal from small businesses, only big ones that could absorb the loss. She even stole a suitcase from the airport once; I thought this was especially bad. It is traumatic to lose your luggage, and I could not believe she showed such callous abandon towards someone else's things. She is no longer my friend.

That said, there have been many times that I have been faced with a wall of fancy cheese at various high-end grocery stores and felt the urge to pocket a $10 Stilton or a Comté. What holds me back is not the moral issue, but the abject fear of getting caught. But I realized that there is an entire underclass of people who regularly steal like this. It's a cinch. Stores rely on our honesty to make money, because it is easier than shit to rip them off.

“Target is my favorite place to take stuff from,” said one of my friends, whom I will call Tara. I was shocked to hear this: Surely a giant retailer like Target has everything magnetized, tagged, and otherwise booby-trapped. Also, it seems like if you were caught there, you would indeed be prosecuted to “the fullest extent of the law,” as the signs say.

“You can't be greedy,” Tara said, adding that when she swipes stuff from Target, she also fills her cart with things she actually pays for: “You have to actually need the item, too. You must never, ever steal just to steal.” I could see what she meant. It could get addictive, once you realized how easy it was. But the more risks you take, the closer you are to getting caught. You should steal a $25 bottle of Bumble and Bumble conditioner only if you actually need conditioner. This also helps with another subtlety of stealing: your facial expression. If you are taking something you actually need, you look less guilty.

All this talk of stealing reminded me of the philosophical idea of the social contract, which explains how society remains civilized. We agree not to steal everything that isn't nailed down, and retailers in turn make money and hire us at a salary, so we can feed our families and not have to steal. If you break the social contract and get caught, you get penalized by society. The punishment is the part I am not interested in. Also, I know the feelings of anxiety and shame I would have if I tried to shoplift would far outweigh any euphoria I might have in getting away with it. It's not for me.

But I love hearing about thievery. Tara pantomimed exactly how she ends up with stuff in her purse. It's a multifaceted series of steps that I will spare the reader (and Target).

“More beers, girls?!” the bartender said, clapping her hands together like it was a birthday party for 6-year-olds. Her exuberance was infectious, so the assembled drank more as a result. She is well worth any visit to Cotter's Corner.

For a moment I pondered stealing from places that seemed easy, places where the urge had hit me in the past: Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Safeway. But ultimately, no Manchego is worth the risk. I will continue to live vicariously through other artful dodgers. My social contract will remain intact.

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