by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
March 31, 2004
THE PURLOINED PURSE
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Saturday, 13 March, was for us enough of a calamity to satisfy the most superstitious.
We were shopping at a supermarket to which we seldom go. I was at one end of an aisle, she at the other, when I heard her exclaim, "My purse is gone!"
Some thief had profited from our momentary distraction to filch from the cart, from beneath the purchases on top of it, her purse.
We went to the front of the store at once, she to tell the clerks what had happened, I to stand foolishly by the exit, hoping to intercept the villain.
A call to 911 produced sounds of sympathy, nothing more.
What had been lost? More than the usual amount of cash (just taken out for an upcoming trip), some traveler's checks, house and car keys, driver's license, credit cards, ATM cards, cards of all kinds, containing the numbers dear to the identity thief, her passport, a few precious family photographs, her cellphone... .
We raced home (I had a key to her car) and began the chore of cancelling all the cards, etc., telephoning the police, finding out how to get a new passport, new driver's license, having my house keys copied, &c., &c.
Such activity was almost palliative-to keep at bay the mingled fury and depression that sets in upon all such victims. I began to think of worse things that might have happened... .
19 March. She telephones me from her University office. The purse has been found. A homeless man had just telephoned, offering to return the purse in exchange for the amount of the traveler's checks. The cash was of course gone, but much of the rest seemed to have survived.
She agreed at once to give him the checks and made an appointment to meet him there.
He arrives, but the transfer of the purse never takes place. There was a high-level meeting of the Board of Regents at the time, and some overly vigilant secretary, alarmed at the sight of this disheveled man, muttering to himself, called the campus police.
Later, he telephones her, obscenely accusing her of calling the cops on him. Nothing could persuade him of the unlikelihood of her doing anything to prevent the transfer of the purse. End of story, we thought.
20 March. At two o'clock in the morning the phone rings. It is another man, named Terry, who says he has found a purse that seems to belong to her. He found it discarded in one of the most disreputable and dangerous areas of Seattle.
We arrange to meet him later, at noon. We would recognize him by the presence of his kids: "My son's hair is brown and my daughter's red." "Reddish blonde," said a child's voice in the background.
At the stroke of noon we are in the entrance of a local department store when a man with two young children, one with brown hair, the other red, approaches us. The little girl, in the shopping cart, is holding the purse. The man accepts the $100 without comment, sticks it at once into his pocket, and that is that. No one has said an extra syllable.
The purse contains everything, even the traveler's checks, most of it now useless because canceled. At home, she handles the thing as if it had spent a year in the pest house: it is sprayed, scrubbed, disinfected, deloused, and hung to recover in the bright Seattle sun.
When we will recover is another matter... .
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.