By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, February 21, 1948.
“Hey! A fight!!” exclaimed Jimmie Frise, snatching my coat sleeve.
Across the street, in the downtown noon hour rush, a sudden swarm of people was gathering.
“Come on!” cried Jim, excitedly.
We ducked through traffic to be in on the on the kill. Now, while it has been my privilege as a newspaperman to have occupied one of those extra front box seats reserved for the press for most of the main events of the past quarter-century, such as wars, riots, earthquakes, fires, coronations and funerals, the fact is, unless I’ve got tickets, I never can get close to a good extempore ruckus. My legs are too short to get me there quickly; too short to let me look over the heads of those who got there first. It was the same here.
“What is it, Jim?” I shouted eagerly, as we found ourselves part of the swirling crowd.
“It’s not a fight,” reported Jimmie, from above. “It’s some old lady…”
By the time we had wiggled and wedged our way deep enough into the fray to discover its cause, the crowd was already breaking up. At the core of the excitement were a policeman and a little old lady.
“She had her pocket picked,” explained one of the earlier arrivals in reply to our question.
“You’re sure,” the policeman, with his little notebook poised, was asking her, “you’re perfectly sure you didn’t leave your purse in on any counter, in the store?”
“Perfectly,” said the shaken little old lady. “Perfectly. In fact, before I came out the revolving doors, I paused inside and looked into my handbag and opened my purse to take this car ticket out…”
“And,” questioned the cop kindly, “you didn’t then drop the purse, inside the store?”
“To take the ticket out,” explained the trembling old lady, with a deep breath,” I did not remove the purse from my handbag. I then stepped through the revolving doors and immediately the two men bumped into me, pretending they were trying to crowd through the doors. I felt a push and a shove. I felt my handbag jerked. When they passed, I found my handbag dangling open, like this, and my purse had been taken.”
“Well,” sighed the big policeman, heavily, “it certainly sounds like the work of professional pickpockets. Could you identify the two men?”
“I think I could,” quavered the old lady.
“Then would you be kind enough to come with me up to City Hall? It’s only a step…” said the cop.
From amidst the diminishing crowd, the two started up the street, the cop tenderly escorting the little old lady so as to make it clear to passersby that she was not pinched.
“Did she lose much?” I asked one of the better informed of the hangers-on.
“She said there was $15 in her purse,” advised the commentator.
Jim and. I turned disappointedly back across the street towards the office.
“Fifteen bucks! I scoffed. “All that excitement for 15 measly bucks!”
“I don’t know,” mused Jim, thoughtfully, as we mounted the stairs to the office. “Fifteen dollars to that little old lady might mean a lot. It might be half her monthly income. It might be half her old age pension or widow’s allowance, maybe.”
“She was a nice little old body,” I admitted. “Funny how crooks always pick on the helpless or the old.”
“I’m not thinking so much about the crooks,” continued Jimmie, thoughtfully, as he prepared to sit down to his drawing board. “I’m thinking about us. And about all those people who went rushing like mad to crowd and jam around that poor old soul.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I challenged. “Natural curiosity. It’s human nature to be curious about excitement of any sort.”
“Yeah,” muttered Jim. “Curiosity. But the minute our curiosity was satisfied, we scattered like leaves in front of a broom. We hadn’t the slightest interest in the poor old woman, the minute we found out what had happened. In fact, as we walked away, you were disgusted that she had lost only 15 bucks.”
“What more could we have done?” I demanded indignantly. “The cop was with her, wasn’t he?”
“You and I,” declared Jim levelly, “might have offered to escort the old lady up to City Hall for the cop. That is one little thing we might have done. No old lady likes to have to walk up the street in company with a great big cop. We know that. The cop knows that. He would have welcomed the suggestion from us. But OH, no. Away we run, the minute our vulgar curiosity is satisfied. Do you know what we are, we are common multitudes? We’re just grown-up URCHINS.”
“Oh, now!” I protested.
“No sympathy, no concern, no fellow-feeling for our neighbors in life,” accused Jim, with mounting feeling. “That old lady might have been our mother or wife or mother-in-law. She’s somebody’s mother. Suppose these darn pickpockets had attacked some dear old lady in our own immediate family… eh?”
“I guess we…” I began humbly.
“We’re supposed to be intelligent guys,” declared Jim, rising. “But we take no more real, personal interest in affairs around us than if we were visitors from Mars.”
Jim stood looking out the office window for a minute then turned and took his coat off the chair back and started to put it on.
“What are you going to do?” I inquired.
“I’m,” announced Jim, “I’m going over and see what has happened about that nice old lady. I’m going over to City Hall and see if there’s any little thing I can do…”
“Awfff,” I protested; but got my coat on, too.
And with a growing sense of worth and importance, we walked up street to City Hall.
Around the back and into the corridors, we found the detective bureau. The halls were filled with the usual shiftless and wistful crowds that frequent police headquarters. Friends, doubtless, of the unfortunates detained within.
Having been a police reporter in my boyhood, I know many of the older cops who have been relegated to jobs such as doormen, guards and desk-sitters. At the detective office gate, I found my old friend Finnegan and explained to him that we had come out of a sense of public duty, to see what had happened to a dear little old lady who had had her pocket picked.
“Och, she’s inside now,” cried Finnegan, “looking through the rogues gallery – the picture albums, you know? Them pickpockets are easily identified. In a few minutes, we’ll have the suspects. And then there’ll be a lineup…”
“A lineup, eh” breathed Jim eagerly.
“Youse boys can get into it,” suggested Finnegan cheerily, “Was you ever in a police lineup? We put the suspects in a line with 10 or 11 innocent men, like your yourselves. And the victim picks the suspect out from the innocent.”
While Finnegan was talking, the door opened, and the little old lady, now quite happy and reassured-looking, came out with her policeman and a couple of detectives. We lifted our hats respectfully to her out of our excessive and growing sense of public duty.
“How long will it be before …?” I asked Finnegan.
“I seen Halloran and Mulcahy, a couple of the plain-clothes detail on pickpockets,” replied Finnegan, “go out of here 10 minutes ago like fire engines. They may be back any time. The old lady apparently identified somebody from the pictures.”
In fact, we had hardly anytime to wait. The detectives had taken the dear little lady across to a private office to wait in comfort. And Jim and I had hardly exchanged more than a couple of boyhood reminiscences with Finnegan when there was a scurry of excitement down the dim and gloomy corridor, and in strode Halloran and Mulcahy, the plainclothesmen, each hustling alongside them an indignant character whom they held by the elbow.
“That’s them,” said Finnegan.
As they passed us at the desk, I got a good look at the suspects. They were alike but two peas. Small, thin, gaunt, with large adam’s apples. Seedy, but sporty. They had large dark eyes, wide with apprehension.
Them dips,” remarked Finnegan, “all look alike.”
Action started immediately. Out came a sergeant and commanded Finnegan:
“Organize a line-up!”
“You two?” inquired Finnegan, as he rose.
“Delighted,” we chorused.
Finnegan went down the thin corridor and started coming. In a couple of minutes, he came back with eight assorted characters he had backed up in the halls: hangers-on. City Hall clerks, men on their way to pay their water rates, travelers, sightseers.
“Line up, here gentlemen,” he commanded, putting Jimmie and me at the head of the column. They always like 12 men in a lineup, including the suspects.
The sergeant emerged from the inner sanctum and signalled. We filed into a big, bare room with a low platform along one side of it. On the platform, with Halloran and Mulcahy beside them, stood the two suspects, earnestly swallowing at their adam’s apples, and their eyes twice as large as before.
“Line up any old way, gentlemen,” directed the sergeant. “Now, Mulcahy, put them two in among: One in number 3 position and one in number 9.”
Jimmie and I were in positions Nos. 7 and 8. And I assure you it was a thrill to see the suspect ceremonially shoved alongside me by Mulcahy.
“Everybody stand steady, now,” commanded the sergeant.
The lights went out; at the same instant, powerful floodlights came on, from a long bracket overhead. We were bathed in light, like actors in the footlights.
We stood blinking, and heard doors open and the sounds of people entering the room.
“Take it easy, now, Mother,” we heard the sergeant saying. “Just sit down here, now, easy, and cast your eye over these gentlemen. Do you recognize anybody…?”
I heard my neighbor in the lineup let his adam’s apple go clunk.
The lights were blinding. Suddenly, for no reason at all, I began to get the shakes. What a silly thing to be doing! Standing here, offering myself to the gaze of a frightened, bewildered old lady.
The lights were hot. I began to perspire. Suppose somebody were out there, in the impenetrable dark of the room, who had seen me, that time, back in 1925…!
Good heavens! Suppose, by one of those freaks of fate, somebody should happen to be there, among the spectators, who, despite my years, might recognize me as the young fellow who, away back in 1919…!
My mouth was dry. My hands were clammy. My eyes, narrowed against the glare, were twitching. If ever a man looked like a criminal …!
Vaguely, I could see that they had brought the infernal old woman close up to us. And she was slowly walking along the row of us, peering intently up at our faces.
She paused, I saw with horror and still worse shakes, straight in front of me.
“My, my, my,” she said, in a high voice. “I would never suppose such a kind gentleman as this could be a criminal …”
“No, no, Mother!” came the sergeant’s good-humored voice. “These are all just passersby, except one or two. Are you SURE you don’t recognize any of these as the men who robbed your purse?”
“They all,” sighed the little lady helplessly, “all look like honest gentlemen to me. No, I don’t see anything like them.”
I heard my neighbor’s adam’s apple go clunk again.
Bang off went the glare lights. On came the soft, normal room lights, and quietly and a little abashed, we all filed out of the room,
“Okay, boss?” inquired the two seedy, sporty characters, anxiously.
“Okay, boys,” agreed the sergeant. “Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“It’s okay, boss,” they assured him, and led the procession of us out into the dark corridor and thence into God’s free air in the streets.
“Whew!” whuffed Jimmie.
“Whew to you!” I agreed. “I got so scared…”
“Man!” cried Jim. “Does your past life ever race past before your eyes!”
I reached inside for my hanky. My exploring hand encountered a curious flatness.
“JIM!” I yelled. “My wallet! My wallet’s gone! I’ve been pock-pick …”
We raced back in to my old friend Finnegan. He got out his pad. The details were written down.
“Now, when,” demanded Finnegan, “did you last notice you HAD your wallet?”
“Well, ugh … er … um …” I declared categorically.
At any rate, out rushed Halloran and Mulcahy again.
We waited until 5 pm. And since then – that’s two days ago – there has been nothing further to report. As for matters of public concern, Jim and I haven’t even mentioned them. This is strictly a private world.