There I was on the steps of the Tower of London where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey and Sir Thomas More, among others, lost their heads — and I lost my wallet.
There’s no comparison, of course, but history buff that I am — their names couldn’t help but pass through my mind as I reached into my handbag for my wallet on a recent trip to London — and found it gone.
I suspected it was gone when a woman in a long skirt swept briskly past me — close enough so that her skirts brushed mine. It wasn’t the first time that my wallet had been stolen, and I’ve learned to sense the presence of a thief. Unfortunately, I fail to sense that presence soon enough and wallet thieves are swift and deft. (They are considerably speedier and more deft than the clumsy executioners who did in Anne and Lady Jane and Sir Thomas, if I remember correctly from my enthusiastic childhood reading of Harrison Ainsworth’s grisly book, The Tower of London.)
Previous encounters with such thieves have been on a New York bus just after sunup and in front of a police station in Old Delhi in India.
The bus thief was a memorable one. A woman in a surgical mask whisked down the bus aisle taking any handbags or briefcases carelessly laid down on seats beside the passengers. If the passenger happened to be snoozing (as I was) and awoke to see the apparition in the surgical mask bent over the seat, he, she or I shrank away — and the purse or wallet was quickly gone.
The even more colorful loss, however, was the one in India. There, street hucksters in Old Delhi were pressing up against me offering Indian saris of jade green and cobalt blue “very cheap.” And goats and bicyclists and sacred cows were milling past. That time, in a narrow alley, a teenager in one of those elegant saris swept it over my handbag and when she swept it away again, my passport folder — with the passport and all my travelers’ checks in it — was gone.
Getting a new passport involved a trip to the nearest police station where six men were drinking tea and chatting. The most official-looking of the lot told me to sit down and then said, “Please write as I say:
To the Station House Officer, Police Station Kowhali, Delhi
While going through the Chandri Chowk area I had my passport (the number I don’t know), travelers’ checks amounting to about $400 and Indian currency about 180 rupees — all in a red leather passport folder — taken from me.
“Now with that,” the police official proudly said as he stamped my letter with a wax seal, ”you can get a new passport. But first you will have to have your picture taken. I advise you to go to Mook Preeti behind the Akaba Hotel. He can take your picture and you can proceed then to the U.S. Embassy.”
At Mook Preeti’s, it turned out, the backdrop for my picture was going to be a Hindu god. The one in front of which he photographed me turned out to be many-armed, and for the next decade, a bit of one of those arms showed from behind my head.
After I got a new passport, of course, I had to get a new visa. A stern Mr. Singh handwrote that into my passport. He clucked disapprovingly at me for having allowed my passport to be stolen — especially since it was a bicentennial (1976) passport and therefore, he said it was “very special.”
Happily, American Express replaced my travelers’ checks and all was not lost.
In London, I dutifully reported the recent theft at the nearest police station. That was in the Underground, but I was informed by the British Transport Police official with whom I spoke that since the theft had been above ground, I would have to go to the Metropolitan Police. I did. There I was greeted by two pleasant young women dressed in uniforms with middy blouses like the ones I remember wearing to assembly in grade school. They carefully perused a map, however, before they would consider my case, saying they had to be sure the theft had occurred within their jurisdiction, not that of the City of London Police. (Its jurisdiction, I learned, is London’s financial district only.)
It turned out I was in the right place, so I was directed to a telephone and told to phone in my report to the voice on the other end. It really was quite like my New Delhi experience except that I spoke instead of writing.
The voice wanted to know my name and address, of course, and where the incident had occurred and what had been taken and what I had seen of the thief. Then the voice said that if the wallet was recovered it would be returned to me, and I was thanked very much for my call.
I asked the young women if I could have some sort of paper to send to my insurance company to verify my loss, and they kindly supplied something with a stamp on it from the Metropolitan Police, Tower of London Station.
After that, I had to telephone American Express and Master Card to cancel my credit cards. As in Delhi, American Express couldn’t have been more efficient. I can’t say the same for Master Card. I ended up making costly long distance cell phone calls to such unlikely Master Card centers as Tulsa and Ottawa.
I should never, of course, have been carrying my wallet with me in a busy place like the Tower of London, but, somehow, since the Crown Jewels are safely kept there, and the burly red and gold-garbed Yeoman Warders — the Beefeaters — have been protecting the tower since they were appointed bodyguards to Henry VII in the 15th century, I felt I would be protected too.
(Yes, they are the same ones whose pictures are on the gin bottles.)
I have been back in West Tisbury a month now and my wallet has not been returned. I have, however, by snail mail, received a very efficient request from the Metropolitan Police.
“Dear Madam,” the letter tells me, “if you wish to file a formal complaint reporting your theft, you must do so within 10 days.” (Since the letter wasn’t sent air mail from overseas, it’s already too late for that.) And I must be able to identify the thief properly, the letter goes on to say. “Did he/she have long hair or short? How old? How tall? Fat or thin? What was he/she wearing?”
Clearly, vague as I am about all this, even if the time limit were not past, I could not file such a complaint.
But the worst is over. I have finally replaced my credit cards, driver’s license and all the rest.
I do think, however, that those red-garbed, bear skin-hatted Beefeaters should have taken better care of me somehow. They certainly guarded Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey and St. Thomas More zealously up until the moment the executioner wielded his axe. And if I were Prince Charles, I might put a private eye on duty with the Yeoman Guards just in case the time ever comes when he needs to don those Crown Jewels.