Killed for Toothpaste and Crayons

The first report of his death left out the crayons.

On a gray Saturday morning in May, the man ran out of the CVS drug store in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood with a stolen tube of toothpaste and was killed by a store employee out back in the alley. The death was ruled a homicide.

At first, nobody mentioned that he also stole a box of crayons.

Toothpaste, I understood. When scratching out survival from the streets becomes what you do everyday; you can make it without toothpaste.

When the choice is beans or toothpaste; beans would win. It’s not a pretty choice. But it is the choice.

Talk to somebody who either lives on the street or is just steps away—a group that grows larger by the hour– and most of them have pretty bad teeth.

Most, but not all, Food Pantries don’t offer toothpaste. So the groaning brittle safety net of how we all take care of each other, pretty much lets teeth slip through to shatter on the cement, a lot like the man killed Saturday in the drug store alley.

Toothpaste was covered in the story. But they left out the crayons.

The man, Anthony Keyser, a 35-year-old unemployed barber, was held down by three people and choked to death by a fourth.

Retail is a brutally hard business. There was a time, gone now, when it served as a huge part of that safety net that kept people alive because there were jobs in retail for people who couldn’t find jobs anywhere else. It still does that a bit, but the industry now groans under the staggering weight that there simply aren’t enough jobs.

Standing in line at the local Trader Joe’s Grocery Store to fill out a job application, in front of me was a man whose last job was Vice President of a Bank. In back of me, a man whose last job was as a Senior Brand Manager for a food company whose cheese you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed.

Connecting the three of us while we waited, I told them that I was a former Vice President of a national Customer Service and Training operation. I knew the human factor in business operations, so maybe between the three of us we could start a company.

But that didn’t happen. We filled out our applications, but the retailer was full.

Beyond being part of that fraying social safety net, retailing is also a tremendously sophisticated, vibrant and creative business—it’s how goods and services get in the hands of the world.

Done well, it’s fun. Something worthy of pride for a myriad of reasons. Resting on tried and true operational principles known by every front line worker, supervisor, manager, district manager, store trainer and executive.

Principles often handed down in training where retailers don’t have time to overcomplicate the rules, so those “Principles” often come down to things like: “If somebody tries to rob he place, give ‘um the money. Don’t be a hero.”

Of course, thinking back on every time I’ve ever heard that little piece of advice or spoken it to someone else, no one’s ever mentioned crayons.

Retailing is also about detail. Big ideas don’t help of the shelves not stocked and faced and the light bulb is burned out.

And I wonder if the detail left out of the original reporting, that the man was also killed for stealing crayons, is really at the heart of this story.

Moralizing, blaming and judgment all come so easy here.

Then comes the politics of fear mongering. Dredging up that unspoken fear shared by all. That cutthroat fear that says, in the shrill voices of those who make a decent living exploiting this fear: What you now have will be taken away from you.

But what if the blaming and the fear mongering wasn’t the point.

What if the crayons were the point?

The crayons and the name of the child for whom he stole those crayons.

If there was a child, what happens to that child now?

3 Responses to “Killed for Toothpaste and Crayons”

  1. Ted Schneider Says:

    Unreal that in this day and age humans gang up on a shoplifter for a few dollars worth of merchandise. So is this the new price of a human life, $7 or $8 dollars? At least in the construction zones they post “Kill a worker and face a $14,000.00 fine plus some jail time”. Perhaps we need to post the dollar amount else where.

  2. Dale Says:

    In the days that Hugo decried, those who stole from desperation were only sent to prison. How miserable, then, the misery now . . .

  3. Paul Haider Says:

    Roger, this is another wonderful post that demonstrates your insightful and compassionate writing style. I saw on the news this morning that the family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CVS. However, what gets lost in all of this is the fact that the man was stealing for his child. In all of the years that I worked at Borders, I never cared to report retail theft committed by customers (or employees!) because I knew that the company would still be making money “hand over fist” at the expense of its employees due to insultingly low wages and salaries. Did the CVS employee ever consider that the value of a man’s life is worth more than the monetary value of toothpaste and crayons?

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