Bad Call


I was at my little job on Court Street in Brooklyn, in a vintage clothing store. It's not the most humiliating job I've ever had, but it is the most recent. One benefit is that I get to go to the bathroom at work. When I came out of the bathroom the other day, I saw the back of a man walking out the front door. As we don't carry men's clothing, my eyes scanned the desk to see if he had left fliers or menus. Nothing. Then I realized "nothing" included my cellphone, which had been sitting on the counter. I grabbed the house phone and dialed my cell number. No ringing in the store. Two girls moseyed in. I grabbed the store keys and pronounced: "You guys are going to have to leave. I've been robbed." They blurted words of encouragement and cooperatively dashed out, watching me lock the front door.

I took off, my brown boots coming down hard on the pavement. (Why am I running all those miles in Prospect Park if not to recover personal property when it strikes my fancy?) After four blocks I saw the man's brown coat ahead of me. How was I going to prove that he took my phone? I was almost to him. A cellphone is teeny; he could have it anywhere, I realized. This problem seemed to vanish when I reached him and he was on my phone.

"You wanna give me my cellphone back, you [very colorful expletive]?"

"Excuse me!" he said, in what sounded like Hollywood Russian, "I'm trying to talk to my MAH-DER!" He continued ambling down the street.

"Well, why don't you talk to your mother on your cellphone, you [classic expletive]-face?" I said, walking alongside him.

"I'm sorry, Ma," he said. "There is crazy woman. What were you saying?"

"Give me my cellphone or I'm going to shove my boot up your [anatomy-based expletive]." He ignored my boot threat.

In what may be a first in crime-fighting, I deployed my financial woes. "I can't afford another cellphone! I don't even have a land line anymore!" But my whole act looked a little too Connecticut or something for this guy. He was totally unresponsive. So I lunged at my phone, still pressed to his ear, where perhaps Mom was making requests for how big a tree to steal for Christmas. He swatted my hand away.

"What's that, Ma?"

He then calmly turned onto a side street, which was the end of the line for me because in my mind, quiet side street equals gruesome head-bashing equals hospital. I was about to give up when I heard him say, "Gewdbye, Ma." Then he handed me my phone and said, "Is not yours, but here."

I became aware of movement behind us: two or three neighborhood guys were coming toward us looking as if they might bust into the final verse of the "boy, boy, crazy boy" song from "West Side Story." I wondered where they had been singing the first verse.

"What happened?" they asked.

"He stole my phone!"

"Who is he?" they asked. When people are late, they are often stupid as well.

"Who is he? I don't know. A thief. He's a thief!"

"We thought he was your boyfriend."


" 'Cause you know, you don't get involved in a domestic."
Sign up for The New York Times Magazine Newsletter  The best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week, including exclusive feature stories, photography, columns and more. Get it sent to your inbox.

"I see." The mama's-boy thief started to walk away.

"You ain't gonna call the cops?" they asked.

"What are the cops gonna do? Get my cellphone back? I did that, right?"

"Yeah. You know, we would have helped you, but we thought--"

"That's O.K., guys, really," I said to them, starting back up Court Street. All the way back to the store, witnesses I hadn't even noticed asked me if I was O.K. and offered their opinions.

An old woman in front of the pharmacy chimed in: "You have to say: 'I don't know this man! Somebody help me."' I thanked her and told her I would do that the next time I was in 1952.

Back at the store I dialed the number he had called. A woman answered. "Yes?" she said.

"Oh, hello, who is this?" I was baiting her.

"Who the hell is this?"

"This is the woman whose phone your son just stole."

"Don't you talk to me like that. I'll have you know I am 52-year-old woman." I was confused. Had she not seen Madonna in a unitard lately?

"Fifty-two's not that old," I said. "I'm just. . .I'm not impressed." I hung up. For the rest of the day I was exhausted from a condition I diagnosed as "vigilante fatigue." My friends told me that what I did was dangerous and stupid, but I do dangerous and stupid things all the time. Like just before closing up the shop and heading home, I went to the bathroom and left my phone right on the counter. Again.

Vicious Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women,” the classic American novel of four sisters born into a distinguished if profoundly broke family, wrote elsewhere that to “help one another is part of the religion of our sisterhood.”

In our house, Louisa May would have gotten a pillow placed over her mouth and nose just after uttering the word “sisterhood.”

“That’s enough of that roughhousing, girls,” my dad would call out as Caroline and I struggled and grunted, grabbing flesh blindly, a thwarted head lock giving way to an artless head-hold-down, followed by the two of us tumbling down a flight of stairs.

“I am about ready to come and separate you two. If I were truly compos mentis, I would have phoned the police two hours ago.”

I was the youngest, Caroline the oldest, with four years between us. To this day I don’t think either of us knows why we didn’t get along. We just wanted to bludgeon each other, no real reason. During our mother’s high-blood-pressure scare of 1983, we were not allowed to sit next to or speak to each other at dinner. Things could escalate in two words, “Pass the . . . ”

“Arghsysheosdonnusnon KILL YOU RIGHT NOW!!!!!!” And we’d have our hands suctioned to each other’s throats.

Caroline was the mastermind behind making me Patty Hearst while she and Liz and Amy played the kidnappers. We’d watched the Patty Hearst TV special, the three of them hogtying and blindfolding me and then throwing me in a closet with our dog, Guinness. I had no idea when my parents left earlier that night and said that Caroline was in charge that they meant of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

As for more traditional activities, the four of us played a lot of tennis. We were all vicious players, terrible losers, cheaters, racket-throwers; expletives were lobbed, dropped at the net and sent hard and flat down the line. Ilie Nastase was our Emily Post.

We also enjoyed simple pleasures, like trespassing. We pool-hopped on hot nights, breaking into people’s backyards to swim. When the king of Morocco bought a house nearby, we put on some “Carol Burnett Show”-type wigs and long, colorful quilted dresses of my mother’s and rang the doorbell, hoping to get past the armed guards we assumed would be answering the front door, with our distracting get-ups.

In “Little Women,” Mr. March was off at war, reminding his daughters to “do their duty faithfully” and think of the less fortunate always. Mrs. March was equally dedicated to improving the girls’ natures. Our father was fighting his own war (on the third floor, a novel and then short fiction) and our mother’s idea of noblesse oblige was limited to trying to get our friends, whose mothers did not cook as well as she did, to understand the importance of butter and Grand Marnier in living a meaningful life.

Like the March girls, we put on plays in our living room. Ours was an original play, “The Subway Switch-On,” a Manhattan strangler drama. And we were being groomed in characters if not character. “Has anyone opened that ‘Finnegans Wake’ I got out of the library? I am telling you, it is sidesplittingly funny.”

We were fond of one another, don’t get me wrong. We lied and cheated for one another on many occasions. Liz often wrote my papers for me; I bought booze for her and her friends at Vassar even though I was still in high school myself; and when a boy in the city liked Amy and not me, I didn’t blame Amy; that would be — “unsisterly,” wouldn’t you say, Louisa May? Instead I beat up the undersize private-school punk right on 83rd and Madison, as any decent sister would.

Mom disintegrated into alcoholism like sugar into a hot toddy, and what we learned from her was not how to cook or keep a marriage together but how to survive. Her desire to die created a very strong survival instinct in her four daughters. Whatever happens, do not give up.

My sisters are not impressed with anything I do. “Yeah, you’re a really big deal now, I know, you told me,” Caroline said when I published my first book. Liz has lent me and gotten back the same $1,000 for the last 15 years, but she would never let me come to her house and cry for five hours. Our seeming toughness, our refusal to allow one another to engage in self-pity and “ain’t life tough” and “aren’t I terrific?” might, in fact, be rather Marchian. Our way of helping one another.

NYT Acrostic Puzzle

The author’s name and the title of the work:

This Sunday edition (February 26, 2012) draws a quotation from Fiction Ruined My Family:

As a kid I was absolutely terrified of clichés. My father forbade them in our home. It was like the way other people regarded cursing in their house. If you said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” my father would go ballistic. Mom couldn’t control herself, apparently, because she violated this rule about every five seconds.

ACROSTIC, Puzzle by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon. Edited by Will Shortz.

© Jeanne Darst - 2022 - all rights reserved