The Magazine

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.”

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