My mother had her purse stolen out of a shopping cart at the Pathmark in Queens sometime in the fall of 1972. A friend suggested that she place an ad for it in the local Pennysaver, promising a reward. Within a day, she got a call from a teenage boy in New Hyde Park who said that he found her purse in a garbage can somewhere near his home. There was no money in it, but it seemed that all her cards were there.
My mom thanked him profusely and made arrangements to retrieve it at his home.
Worrying at the last minute that the call might be a trap, she asked me to come along. I was 12, tall and skinny, owing to my newly-discovered talent for starving myself. We drove the short distance from our home in Douglaston, arriving at the designated address, which turned out to be a few blocks away from my cousins Rena and Mordy.
The difference between the two homes was dramatic. While my cousin's modest ranch had mowed lawns in front and back and a well-maintained facade, this home - a sad wooden cottage -- looked practically abandoned. The grass grew knee-high in the front lawn. Shingles were missing from the sloping roof. A chain-fence was orange with rust. Windows were half-covered with torn or crooked shades.
My mother gripped my hand and we rang the doorbell. Within minutes, a scraggly, underfed boy greeted us. We stepped tentatively through a darkened, littered hallway and followed him down a flight of stairs. The air was musty and smelled like a cat's litterbox.
The family appeared to live in the basement, but there was no adult to be found. A tinny radio was playing. Seated around an oblong folding table sat a group of unwashed kids with my mother's purse at the front end. The most senior member -- a boy in his late teens -- presided over the gathering.
"I found this in the garbage near the playground," the boy said. It came out like "I foun this inna gahbahj neah the playgrown." He didn't smile.
The kids around the table stared hungrily at us. I felt acutely uncomfortable, like a princess visiting from a nearby kingdom, encountering commoners for the first time.
I was aware of my mother's shock. She nodded, affirming that the purse was hers.
"Thank you very much," she said.
The boy arose and walked towards us. I felt my mother stiffen. The eyes of the seated children continued to stare avidly. The boy stood before us. He handed her the purse.
"Here," he said. It came out "heah."
"Thank you," she said again, reaching into her pocket and taking out an envelope.
The boy reached out a knobby hand.
"Thanks," he said.
"Well, goodbye," my mother said. "Thank you very much. It would have been a big pain to replace my driver's license and all the cards."
The kids stared mutely.
Within a minute, we were back out on the street, practically running towards our car.
Looking back on that episode, two details stand out in vivid relief:
That my mother had been wracked with remorse afterwards, having given the kids only a $5 bill.
And that the song on the radio was a new and ubiquitous hit single -- ABC -- by the Jackson 5, whose lead singer was a tiny dynamo named Michael.