When I was a kid, I lived with my mom but I stayed with my dad and stepmother on Friday nights and Saturdays. Every Saturday morning we'd go grocery shopping, which could be a pretty complicated affair because my stepmother was adventurous and skilled in the kitchen and a member of a gourmet cooking club. While Dad and June shopped, me, my brother, my stepbrother and stepsister were turned loose in the shopping center and allowed to explore.
We shopped at Food World, which doesn't exist anymore, located in a strip mall off Florida Avenue in north Tampa. There was also an Eckerd Drugs, a Hallmark card shop, a laundromat, a Radio Shack. We'd go to the Danish Bakery in Food World and get a free cookie. We'd sit in Eckerds and read comic books and magazines with our sticky fingers until the employees kicked us out. We'd go to Sherry's Hallmark and admire the ceramic animals and glassware and whatever else glittered on the shelves. We'd go to Radio Shack and dream about stereos and video games.
One day, when we were about 11, my stepbrother and I got especially adventurous and went through the laundromat and out the back door, to the back of the shopping center. I suppose we just wanted to know what was behind the building. Nothing but a strip of asphalt and a swamp, as it turned out, but there was a big trash dumpster. Of course we looked inside it, and what did we see? A woman's purse, lying on top of the debris.
One of us climbed in and retrieved the purse, and we carried it over to the curb, sat down, and started going through it. There was a blue leatherette case containing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, a pair of sunglasses, and some other stuff -- but no cash. If there was a wallet, it was empty. It seemed strange that someone would throw all this in the trash, but we figured it was ours now. Finders keepers, right?
Suddenly a very angry woman stormed out of the laundromat and began yelling at us. Of course it was her purse, which someone had taken from the counter in the laundromat -- and of course she thought we were the thieves! We tried to explain we'd found it in the trash, but she was hearing none of it. She said she was calling the police. My stepbrother and I had our standard default reactions -- he got angry, and I cried.
Finally she let me run to Food World to get our father. I remember running up to him in the store, blubbering away in a state of panic. He came back to the laundromat and calmly defused the situation. I don't remember what he said to the woman, but he must have been convincing because eventually she collected her plundered purse, the cigarette case, her sunglasses and whatever else we'd found, and she let us go.
It's funny how it never occurred to us that purse might be stolen. We thought someone had simply thrown it away!
It wasn't the first time we found suspicious stuff at the shopping center, either. A few years later we were exploring some adjacent woods when we found a photo album full of nude pictures -- and we recognized the guy in the pictures as a neighbor! (Dad burned the album.)
Who said suburbia was boring?
(Photo: A self-portrait in a reflective globe on a fountain, a couple of weeks ago.)