I’m talking about crime, of course. But even as I start to type, I realize my first time as a crime victim, indirectly, was in Alexandria, Virginia, where someone broke into the car and stole the radio, while the family Scottish Terrier, Dreamy, kept barking to alert us, earning only a “Shut up!” for her efforts. (But what kind of car was it? The pale green Valiant, or the one before? Family cars, in order: Valiant. Red Ford station wagon. A dark green Triumph that was later painted taxi cab yellow. A white Renault that my father negotiated for at a Reisterstown Road dealership, cranky from recent dental surgery. A beautiful used Audi that had been meticulously maintained by its previous owner, a Secret Service agent. A yellow VW Rabbit, on which I learned to drive stick, making me part of a tiny American minority, an estimated 15 percent today. And, finally, a blue AMC Hornet, purchased new on the upper end of Route 40, whose radio literally began smoking as we drove it off the lot. What do these automotive choices reveal about my family? More than I’m willing to contemplate right now.)
But the crime on my mind took place in August 1967. Or, possibly, ’66. We had parked at Edmondson Village Shopping Center and purchased our back-to-school shoes at Hess, a local shoe store that had a children’s barbershop attached, with squirrel monkeys frolicking in the windows. The shoes were exquisite — brown Oxfords, with some kind of curious, two-toned thing going on, an effect created with a piece of transparent yellow plastic. Trust me, they were cool. Because I had an older sister, I didn’t get a lot of new clothes, so new shoes were especially exciting to me. Every fall, I picked out a pair that I believed would change my life, or at least my persona. I had high hopes for those shoes.
But they were stolen out of our unlocked car as we ran other errands. My mother called the police, who made it clear that we were simply too naive, too silly, to be at large in Baltimore. An unlocked car! Ha! Go back to Virginia, you silly hicks! (In hindsight, my mother’s gentle Georgia accent probably played into the cops’ attitudes.) I couldn’t get another pair of shoes like the ones that were lost, although I don’t remember why. And I never found a pair of shoes that changed my life, but I never stopped trying.
Meanwhile, if you don’t want to get your car stolen in Baltimore — drive a stick. Most of the car thieves can’t. “I really respect a woman who knows how to drive a stict,” a young valet at a suburban country club told me last fall after a book luncheon. When the alleged “Tadpole” trend comes to this part of the world, it is so over.