Just a start is all he needs, but wonít get

   He was busted. He had tried to run away when he was caught with a pair of Leviís he had shoplifted from one of our stores, but two of our faster employees had chased him for two blocks and tackled him.
   Now he was sitting in our warehouse office, waiting for the police to arrive and haul him away.
   He wasnít young, he wasnít old. Probably in his early 30s, at the beginning of his peak income-producing years. But he had given up a long time ago.
   He was a professional, but he had chosen a risky trade. He had a shopping bag full of merchandise from other stores, all of it stolen. It added up to about $500 worth of goods.
   We had been after him for awhile, and now we had him. I came out of my office to take a good look at the guy who had been brazenly stealing from us for weeks, if not months. I wanted to see him squirm.
   We had handcuffed him, even before the police arrived. He was slumped in a chair, his legs outstretched. I stared at him, saying nothing. He looked at me, then looked away. I was surprised. There was no bravado, no cockiness, no defiance.
   The look on his face was something I never expected. His only expression was one of unmistakable sadness.
   I listened as the employee who tackled him berated the shoplifter for choosing to steal instead of honest work. "Why donít you get a job?" our employee shouted.
   The shoplifter sighed, raising his head briefly. "Iíve tried," he whispered. "Nobody will hire me."
   The police arrived and took a full report. The shoplifter had no middle name. He couldnít remember the room number where he was living in the transient hotel. He said he was not on parole or probation. He wasnít carrying any weapons.
  The police took him out to the street and put him in the back of the patrol car, still handcuffed. I volunteered to keep an eye on him while the police took a report from the employees.
   Again, I caught his eye before he looked away. This young man was clearly defeated. I donít think he was sad because he got caught. No, he gave me the unmistakable impression he was sad because life was such a monumental struggle.
   It was at that point that I first thought about giving this guy a job. Our busy season was fast approaching and we had a couple of entry-level positions opening up. Both started at $5.50 per hour, standard for our industry.
   The shoplifter, sitting so disconsolately in the back of the squad car, hands clasped behind his back, may need nothing more than a break. I could give him a job, even at the paltry wage of $5.50 per hour, and watch him grow.
   I could work with him, watch him closely, talk to him. And most of all, I could give him hope. He seemed bright enough, presentable enough, courteous enough. If I could just give him a start, who knows? The sadness might lift.
   My general manager walked up and I cautiously mentioned the idea of hiring the shoplifter to him. We looked into the patrol car and he glumly glanced back, knowing we were discussing him.
   "Iíll be back," said my general manager. He returned a minute later with a stack of papers an inch thick.
   "We put a ĎHelp Wantedí sign in the window four days ago," he said. "No ad in the paper, just walk-by applicants. So far, weíve received about 70 applications for our entry-level positions. And not one of them," he continued, "shoplifts for a living, as far as I know."
   I thumbed through the applications. I donít do the hiring for entry-level positions, and I had lost touch. People from all walks of life, most eminently qualified, many over-qualified, all with permanent addresses and excellent references, were applying for the $5.50 per hour position.
   These people were out there trying, and trying hard. Out of 70 initial applicants, we might call eight for interviews and hire two Ė two lucky people who could earn $5.50 per hour. The rest would trudge on, filling out more applications, following every lead, until someone offered them a job.
   The police had finished and were getting in the car. I looked at the shoplifter again. He was as sad as ever.
  And as I watched the police car drive away, so was I.

 

 

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