I come from a family of thieves.
“In the United States, if it’s left out on the street, then it’s free,” my father said to me that first week we had arrived from China while we settled into our new home in South LA.
At least this was the rationale he used to acquire my first bicycle. We got it one rainy afternoon outside a Chinese supermarket in the San Gabriel Valley. A kid-sized Schwinn. Red shiny paint. Real classy chrome handles. And a basket too.
“I’ll wait here in the car,” my dad said to me.
We drove up to the bicycle, which was parked outside the front door of the market. No chains. No locks. Not exactly left on the side of the streets, but it was in a parking lot, so that was close enough. I darted across the lot, pushed the bike like it belonged to me, opened the backdoor of the car, and popped that sucker in.
“They won’t arrest an eight year-old. Just act natural.”
My dad worked at a motel on 3rd and Alexandria in MacArthur Park, so most of our bed sheets and towels were stolen too. Never great quality: real thin, bad thread count, polyester, and sometimes a little stained. He brings them back home whether we wanted it or not.
“Just use some bleach and it’ll be fine,” he said. Our factory-direct flame retardant curtains had cigarette holes in them. “Keeps you safe. Won’t burn.”
We stole ashtrays and used them for plates, we stole large cardboard boxes and used them as my ghetto Barbie Dream House, and we smooshed little soaps together to make a normal-sized bar.
My dad knew that I preferred Hot Wheels to Barbies in my McDonald’s Happy Meals, so he helped me build a car ramp that connected to the second floor of my dream house with toilet paper rolls.
“See!” he said proudly. “Aren’t you glad I used to be an engineer?”
Every so often at the motel, our neighborhood junky/stolen-goods salesman Kenny would come by around 2 a.m. selling VCRs, CDs and boom boxes. Once we even got a machete from him for $5.
“Yo man, you wan watches for yah daughtah?” Kenny said. “I gots Rolex, Carteerrr, Mickey Mouse.”
“You see him?” my dad said to me. “He’s a drug user. Don’t be like him” “What’s a drug user?” My mom worked at a sweatshop. I spent my summers cutting threads for her in a stuffy warehouse with no AC and a big industrial fan. I wasn’t allowed to cut white clothes because I’d poke my fingers too often on the scissors and get red spots on the fabric.
Other women brought their kids to help too. Bring your kid to work season was two months in the summer and two months in the winter. If LA Unified School District was super crowded, then that’d get extended to three months. I stole plastic buttons and pretended it was money. I stole waistbands and clothes tags and operated a makeshift popup store. Sometimes I’d even play with the other kids on the factory floor. Every so often one of us would slip and fall and get splinters.
“Don’t play near the machines,” mom’s dragon-lady boss warned us.
My mom stole dolphin-printed fabrics that smelled like feet. “I can make shirts out of these,” she said. Thank god I wore uniforms at school.
On television I had seen that in America every family had two cars, a house, and a wooden fence. I could probably incrementally steal a fence from Home Depot if I went back often enough. For a car, I’d have to enlist the neighborhood boys Omar and Alvaro for help. A house would be harder.
Theft at the 99 cents store on Washington and Maple was the easiest because there were no anti-theft detectors. The Food for Less on Adams and Hoover was a little harder. Don’t even think about Thrifty’s.
The school lunchrooms were good for stealing an extra carton of milk. Four cartons equaled to a pint. Mom liked milk. Dad liked apple juice.
Kleptomania is defined by health care professionals as an uncontrollable urge to shoplift. If I could have stolen some health care and sought some help, I would have guessed they’d categorize me as that too.
When I was 18 I got a job at the Starbucks on Hoover and Jefferson by USC. Three years later I would talk my way into admissions, but back then I was just one of the poor kids from the neighborhood making coffee for the rich kids at the school. I had gotten admissions to a university up north with a scholarship, but then my dad up and lost his vision. Mom was already deaf, so she was no help.
“Your father had a seizure in his sleep,” the eye doctor said. “Do your parents speak any English? Do you have a sibling to help you?”
No and no.
Pastries were easy to steal and dad loved them. Fresh coffee was easy too. Sandwiches were harder.
“What are you studying?” my co-worker Michael asked me as we made lattes. “I’m going to the Architecture school.”
“Oh, you know, school’s so boring,” I deflected.
In the United States, if it’s left out on the streets it’s free. Once I found someone threw away an admissions brochure outside of Starbucks. I was sweeping and I found it was holding up a wobbly leg on a patio table.
Apply. Perspective First-Year. Transfer Options.
When I was eight we tried to steal an electrical box cuz we thought it’d make a good wardrobe, but it turned out to be tethered to the ground. This brochure wasn’t tethered to the ground.
Jian Huang’s parents brought her to the United States from Shanghai, China, when she was six years old. She grew up in South Los Angeles through the LA Riots and eventually earned her degree in Art History from the University of Southern California. She has worked for several social service organizations, including LA Conservation Corps, Homeboy Industries and LA County Arts Commission. Her work has appeared in Dirty Laundry Lit, Los Angeles Review of Books, ALOUD, Entropy, Angel City Review, and Tongue & Groove among others. She is the recipient of a 2016 PEN Emerging Voices fellowship and a 2017 Harriet Williams Emerging Writer award. Jian is currently working on her first memoir about the humorous and lonely journey to the American Dream.