The Magazine

The Paper Chase

Vengeance is mine when the crime is so abhorrent.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JOE QUEENAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers