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The Paper Chase

Vengeance is mine when the crime is so abhorrent.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Recently, I drove to the nearby village of Pleasantville to buy my wife a couple of books as a birthday present. I also bought some festive wrapping paper. The paper had lots of brightly colored fruits silhouetted against a shiny white surface. It was quite jolly. 

wrapping paper

It didn’t surprise me that the wrapping paper was so sweet and life-affirming because Pleasantville is a really pleasant, life-affirming little town. Shortly after making my purchase, I ran into a good friend who invited me to grab a cup of coffee. I deposited the books and the jaunty wrapping paper on a wrought-iron table outside the coffee shop, and went inside. I couldn’t have been in there more than a couple of minutes; but when I came back out, the wrapping paper was gone. The books were still there, but the wrapping paper wasn’t.

“That was really jolly wrapping paper!” I exclaimed. “Anyone seeing that wrapping paper would know that it was specially purchased to make somebody happy. It’s the kind of paper you would use to wrap a child’s present. What kind of scumbag would steal festive, jaunty, jolly wrapping paper like that?”

My friend, a beefy guy who is not to be trifled with, agreed that the thief was the scum of the earth. He headed south and I headed north to see if we could run the lowlife down. If I found him first, his life would not be worth a brass farthing. I’d rip out his lungs. I’d grind my boot into his face. I’d fish-gut him. 

We found nothing.

“I’m going to run over to the train station and check there,” I told my friend. “It’s probably a teenager. If I see him with that wrapping paper, I’m going to knock his teeth out. I am. I swear. I will literally rip that scumbag to pieces!”

Alas, there was no guilty party at the train station. I scoured the station, wandering up and down both platforms, but came up empty. As I looked around, seething, I thought back to other incidents of this sort. Fifteen years earlier, I was waiting for the uptown Q train in a deserted Manhattan subway station when I realized that I had dropped one of my new calfskin gloves. I had bought the gloves not 20 minutes earlier at Lord & Taylor. They were the only pair of expensive gloves I had ever owned. 

Reconstructing my movements, I realized that I had removed the gloves while purchasing tokens, and had probably dropped one, so I ran back to the token booth. The area was still deserted. But the glove was nowhere to be found. Nor had the clerk seen anyone pick up the glove. I was enraged. What kind of person would make off with a single glove? A glove that was obviously brand-new? An expensive glove that could not possibly be of any use to anyone? What kind of person would do that? I never bought an expensive pair of gloves again.

Another time, I was coming out of the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater in the bowels of the Museum of Modern Art when I realized that I did not have my beautiful blue woolen scarf around my neck. It was a thick scarf with navy and royal blue checks that my wife had knitted for me. It had taken her months to finish the job. I ran back inside and looked all over the theater, in vain. Then I checked at the front desk to see if anyone had returned it. No one had. 

I was beside myself. The scarf was obviously not store-bought merchandise. It had clearly been handcrafted by someone who loved the person wearing it: a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a lover. Whoever had scooped up that gorgeous scarf knew this. But it made no difference to them. For they were satanic. They subscribed to the theory “Finders, keepers; losers, weepers.” And yes, I was weeping.

I checked back at the lost-and-found desk many times over the weeks and months to come, without success. But one afternoon, about three months later, at a screening of the classic Jean-Pierre Melville film Bob le Flambeur at the Bleecker Street Cinema, I spotted a stubby, bespectacled man wearing my scarf. He was a regular at the arty movie houses we used to frequent. I cornered the brigand, laid my hands around his neck, and removed the purloined item. He tensed. He trembled. But he never said a word.

“Thanks for taking care of my scarf for the last three months,” I hissed. “You’re lucky I don’t hang you with this.” I never saw the man again.

I was thus in my reverie when I re-emerged from the Pleasantville train station. Across the street, I saw my friend. He was clutching my wrapping paper. 

“Did you find the guy who stole it?” I asked, sure that the thief was a man.

“No,” he said. “I found it lying between those two vans.”

I immediately recalled that when I had launched into my tirade about what I would do to anyone horrible enough to steal a complete stranger’s jaunty, jolly wrapping paper, a man had been standing right beside the van. The man was now gone, though the van was still there. I was sure he was the culprit. I was sure he’d heard my threats and decided to save his hide by ditching the stolen wrapping paper. 

I hung around for a while, but did not see the man again. I was happy to have the wrapping paper back, yet I still felt unsatisfied. The man had committed an outrageous crime and had coughed up the goods out of fear of reprisal. But he had not been punished for what I viewed as a crime against humanity.

But he will be. Next week I’m going back over to Pleasantville with a roll of even jauntier wrapping paper. As before, I’m going to leave it out on full display. As before, I’m going to wander inside to buy a coffee. And then, with the trap baited, I will wait. I might need to stay there a few hours—there is no way of telling when he will come back—and I might need to return to the scene of the crime more than once. I might even need to buy still jollier wrapping paper. This could take a while. 

But I can wait. Because a person that villainous needs to be chastised for his misdeed. A person who would steal wrapping paper that sweet, that cute, that life-affirming, that jolly, is a person incapable of being rehabilitated. In the fullness of time, he will strike again. And when he does, I’ll be waiting for him with a two-by-four at the ready. It’s not going to be jolly.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

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