There comes a time in most people’s lives where the world bears its sharp teeth and takes a tiny little bite out of you – a time where you learn that there are bad people in the world.

Mine came for me when I was around 9 years old. It was Christmas time, and I went with my friend Vicky and her mom to go shopping. I was excited to have a chance to do my Christmas shopping in total secrecy – usually my sister wold have to drag me up to the 5 & 10 in Palisades Park where would pick out some crappy and lame gifts while they looked the other way.

We drove out to Alexander’s in Paramus, NJ which was sort of a poor man’s Macy’s back in the 70’s. It was a huge store and was kind of famous for the giant mural painted for the store by Polish artist Stefan Knapp. I always thought the mural was ugly.

The store was crowded that day. I weaved my way through the crowd with Vicky and her mom holding fast to my purse that carried all the money I had in the world – $8.00. I can still remember that stupid purse. It was an orange beaded drawstring purse, with the word “Florida” written on it in constrasting yellow beads – it was gaudy as hell in true 70’s style.

We decided to hit the ladies room before we began our day of shopping. I chose a stall and hung my purse on the little hook inside the door. After I was done I exited the stall, washed my hands and went to leave when I realized I had forgotten my purse that was hanging on the door.

I waited outside the stall where I had been, and when the woman exited, I looked in and there was my purse, still hanging. I grabbed it, totally relieved, until I looked inside.

My $8.00 was gone.

Knowing it could only have been the woman who had been in the stall after me, I ran out of the bathroom in search of her. I spotted her and told Vicky’s mom that she was the one who stole my money. But, without me having actually seen her, Vicky’s mom would not approach the woman. She said that we just couldn’t go up to a total stranger and accuse her of stealing money out of a child’s purse.

I was crushed. My stomach felt like an empty pit as the realization slowly crept over me that all my money was gone – that there would be no happy ending, no good samaritan to make everything all right.

I can’t remember if I cried or not. I do know that I had to trudge around a crowded store without a dime to my name for the rest of the day. We saw the thief woman a time or two more that day, and scowled viciously at her each time.

While I have totally forgotten how I was able to buy anyone presents that year, or what my Mom said when I told her how I’d been robbed, the loss of that $8.00 has stayed with me.

I’ve told both of my girls that story countless times as a reminder to them to keep an eye on their stuff when they are out and about. Most times I insist on carrying their cash and wallets if we are out shopping because I’d hate for them to go through what I did. And let me tell you, they are carrying a hell of a lot more than a lousy $8.00 when we hit the mall.

That story has become a “not again, mom!” tale of woe from my past, but it was an important life lesson. It’s when I realized that despite all the wonderful, quirky, warm and wacky folks that wander this planet, there are others who lurk.

They sit in wait and watch for little girls to make mistakes.

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