“Oh, yeah! I can list everything I’ve stolen and which bar I stole it from,” said Dave*, a social worker. His face lit up as he launched into a multi-borough theft retrospective: One Stella Artois, one Chimay and two Radeberger glasses from The Mark Bar in Greenpoint; three appetizer plates, two place settings and a set of salt and pepper shakers from Mercury Bar on 3rd Avenue; two martini glasses from Joshua Tree in Midtown; and one Lost shot glass from an overprotective friend’s collection, most of which are thrown together on a shelf in his kitchen that might as well be a trophy case. Andrew’s* shelf is the same way, or at least it used to be: “My entire kitchen was stocked with steins I took from Radegast. I only have one left now, people kept stealing them.”
“You have to bolt everything down,” said Matthew Rodgers, one of the bartenders at Radegast, where the Hofbrau steins are as much of a target as they are a signature, and most recently a security guard found a guy with two shopping bags full of the glasses standing outside having a cigarette.
“You get this idea in your head that you’re invincible and nothing can stop you. Since they were charging $10 for a drink I didn’t feel as bad,” said Sarah*, explaining the lamp she took home from Vintage. “It’s about a foot high, kind of Victorian with tacky burgundy stripes… I didn’t realize until I got it home that it looked really horrible. Another night I ended up with artwork, a strawberry scented candle and three beer glasses from some Italian place. My bag fell off my shoulder after I left, and all of it broke.”
Whether it’s home furnishing, a memory aide or old school belligerence, people have plenty of reasons to steal from bars, but almost nothing in the way of technique. As Andrew puts it, “If you’re drunk enough it doesn’t matter, you just walk out the door.”
“A while back I blacked out and woke up with a red light bulb sitting on my nightstand, and I thought, what the fuck is that,” said Scott Cavazos, sitting a few feet away from the bulb’s former home at the Black Rabbit. “Eventually I remembered that I sat there for a long time unscrewing it out in the open, but was really specific about sneaking it out. Part of the thrill of stealing is playing the cat burglar. Everyone in the bar saw me unscrew the bulb, but I’d been buying drinks there for 3 hours, so no one cared.”
Scott has a point: if you’re making some kind of production out of stealing things, you’re probably your own best (and only) audience. Aside from a bartender at Savalas who had to use security tapes to get back the owl someone had grabbed from behind the bar, no one who actually works in bars seems too concerned, and most will tell you that the same things drunk girls are shoving in their bags end up thrown out, lost, or broken anyway. “It’s like, OK, you want me to wash it for you before you take it?” said one Upper West Side bartender. Like anything else, the people who care the most are relegated to the internet, where there are endless blogs dedicated to the subject by would-be vigilantes.
Rodgers, who has worked on and off in New York bars for the past two decades, says “I don’t have the time” to bother hovering over things which are usually promotional and sent to the bar for free. Instead he changes the subject: “I still have a glass I stole from 7B [Horseshoe bar] in 1990, just a little 9-ounce beer stein. I remember the night, it was snowing out. I was 22, I had just moved to the East Village, I was in heaven.”
So maybe it’s not a traditional spiritual experience, and most people claim it was something they used to do a long time ago, even if “a long time” really means “two weeks.” But stealing from bars does make for a morning after that’s more introspective than your average hangover. Sarah calls her purse full of broken glass “karma” and Scott mused, “I don’t know why I took [the light bulb]. Once I figure it out, I’ll take it back.” For his part, Dave says he’s now out of practice. “It was embarrassing like, that’s how drunk I get?” he said. “So I stopped doing it after, uh, I got enough glasses.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.