Alligator Bag ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Her name was Margaret Isabel Arlen, but nobody used her real name anymore. Her street name was Toots. Years earlier, after discovering alcohol, she took up residence on the streets and alleyways of the city, relinquishing her good name and any semblance of respectability: home, husband, children, church, bridge club. And then it was as if those things had never existed at all.
To live, as others of her kind did, she engaged in the ancient art of “panhandling” (persuading strangers on the street to part with their money by appealing to their sympathies) or by stealing. Panhandling was distasteful to her (a little matter of pride), but she considered herself a master thief: a snatcher and a grabber. And after she snatched or grabbed, she ran. She outran her pursuers more often than not. She stole a melon from an open-air fruit market, gloves and costume jewelry from a department store, a fifth of whisky from a package store, a loaf of bread from a delicatessen, a can of tuna, a jar of pickles, a quart of milk, a cheap coat from an inattentive diner at a lunch counter, a man’s hat from a barber shop, a sign from a restaurant window that said Open All Night, a fox fur coat from the balcony of a movie theatre, a box of bird seed from the pet store, a pair of shoe laces and several pencils from the blind man on the corner, a bottle of aspirin from the drugstore, a movie magazine, a bottle of perfume, a hot water bottle, a toothbrush, a card of bobby pins, a box of suppositories, a small box of Valentine candy. The list was without end and included anything she might reasonably lay her hands on and carry away. What she couldn’t eat, drink, or use herself, she sold or gave away to friends.
On a blustery afternoon in November, she stopped in at the municipal bus station to warm her hands and feet. After using the restroom facilities, she washed up at the sink: face, neck, arms and hands. Lovely hot water and even lovelier soap! As much as she wanted and nobody to say a word! She would have taken off all her clothes and washed all over if she could have.
After she dried her face and hands, her clothes were wet and she was feeling chilled, so she went into the women’s lounge and sat on one of the benches: lovely benches spaced all the way around the room. Ladies came in and deposited their packages and coats on the benches while they went into a restroom stall and did what ladies do.
The lounge was warm and, for the moment, quiet. Ladies came in, one or two at a time, and then left. Toots would have laid down on the bench and gone to sleep, but just as sure as she did, one of the bus station employees would come in and say in a rude voice: Hey, you! No sleeping!
A tall woman with red hair came into the lounge and right away Toots recognized her as a woman of quality. She wore a fur coat and expensive-looking pumps. She held herself erect; her skirt swayed with every step. She took a comb out of her alligator bag and fussed with her hair in front of the mirror. After she put away the comb she applied lipstick and when she was finished she smiled at her image in the mirror, turning her head this way and that.
With Toots watching her, the red-haired woman sat down on the bench, slumped her shoulders and took a deep breath. She slipped off her shoes, first one and then the other, rubbed her toes, put the shoes back on. Standing up then, she took off the fur coat she was wearing, placed her bag on the bench and covered it up with the coat (as if that would protect the bag from theft), and then went into one of the restroom stalls and closed the door.
Toots eyed the fur coat with pleasure. It was so beautiful, the way the light shone on it. If it belonged to her, she would never want to take it off and winters would seem kinder. It would feel so good to turn the collar up when the north wind was doing its business. And wouldn’t she be the envy of all the other alley cats? She could just see their eyes popping out of their skulls.
The woman with red hair would be back any second. If Toots was going to snatch the coat and run, she couldn’t hesitate. He who hesitates is lost. She could be out the door with it in three or four seconds. Speed was of the essence.
No one else was in the lounge at the moment. There would be no one to see her. It would be so easy and in a few seconds she’d be outside, running down the street, blending in with the crowd. She could see herself standing on the corner, slipping the coat on over her shoulders. Whose coat do you have there, ma’am? Well, whose coat do you think it is? It’s mine, of course!
She stood up from the bench and, alert for any movement behind her, reached out her hands and put them on the coat. Just touching it was a pleasure; there was nothing else quite like it: soft, rich, luxurious.
But when she picked up the coat, she saw the even bigger prize underneath: the rich-looking alligator handbag with a gold clasp. Wouldn’t there almost certainly be a large stash of cash inside such a bag? The coat might be worth a lot, but there’s nothing like cash. Cash, enough of it, could buy multiple fur coats and anything else that madame desires.
After a quick glance over her shoulder, she grabbed the bag and slung the coat aside. With the bag clutched to her breast, she ran out of the lounge and, making a quick right turn, into the terminal itself and another fifty yards to the revolving door at the main entrance. Nobody tried to stop her; nobody noticed her.
She ran down the street, convinced someone was chasing her. She ran until she was gasping for breath and couldn’t go any farther. She ducked into an alleyway hidden from the street and, catching her breath, opened the alligator bag to see what was inside.
The first thing was the wallet, the most prized item in the bag. She opened it and looked at the woman’s driver’s license. Her name was Mrs. Melba LaForce, of 1506 Cordovan Place. She was forty years old, five feet, eight inches tall, with red hair and gray eyes.
There was also money in the wallet and that’s what mattered: twenties, tens, fives and some one-dollar bills. After counting the money twice with trembling fingers, she found she had scored two hundred and seventy-three dollars. Nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about either.
For the first time in a long time, she felt a glimmer of hope. She’d get herself a room and take a little vacation. She’d take a long soaking bath and when she was finished she’d take another one. She’d wash her hair and sleep in a real bed with sheets. She’d sleep until she woke up and when she woke up she’d go out to a restaurant of her choice and order anything on the menu. She’d have fried chicken or a steak or some Irish stew and cherry pie with ice cream on top. And maybe, just maybe, after she got herself cleaned up, she’d call her husband on the phone and see how he felt about a visit from her. She’d want to hear all about the kids, and she’d swear by all that’s holy that she had given up drink forever and ever.
Before she left the alleyway, she took the compact out of the alligator bag, along with a comb and lipstick. Opening the compact, she regarded her disreputable countenance in the little round mirror and gave a shudder. She combed her dreadful hair straight back from her forehead and, taking the dainty powder puff from the compact, powdered her forehead, nose, cheeks and chin. Then she outlined her lips with the blood-red lipstick and smacked them. When she was finished, she was certain she looked better than she had in a long time.
With the alligator bag over her arm, she left the alleyway and walked five or six blocks to Patsy’s Package Store, where she went inside and bought a big bottle of Canadian Club Rye Whisky. When she went to pay for it, she opened the alligator bag and counted out the money and handed it to the young clerk with a confident smile. When he handed her back her change, he expected her to carry the bottle away the way it was, but she insisted he put it in the paper bag, which was only proper for a lady.
From there, with the bottle tucked under her arm, she walked to the Knickerbocker Hotel, just on the edge of skid row. The Knickerbocker wasn’t the best hotel in the city, but it was far from being the worst. (My dear, where are you staying this visit? Why, darling, don’t you know? I’m stopping at the Knickerbocker!)
She would have paid for the room in advance, but when she signed the hotel register Mrs. Melba LaForce, the desk clerk handed her the key and told her she could go on up and let herself in. She was wearing lipstick, for God’s sake, and her hair was combed. Those things make a difference.
She had to climb up four flights of stairs, causing her legs to nearly fold on her, but by the time she found her room, it was with pleasure that she opened the door. She entered the room and, with a flourish, locked herself in. It would be her room for as long as she paid for it, and nobody else could come in unless she let them in.
The first thing she did in her room was to open the alligator bag and dump it out on the bed. In the wallet, besides the money, there were also credit cards to some of the finest stores in the city. She would get herself a pair of shoes, a coat, a pair of gloves. The thing about stolen credit cards, though, is that they must be used quickly. After they’re reported stolen, they’re useless.
A bath was the first order of business, though, before any shopping. She filled the tub with scalding water and, removing her filthy clothes, immersed herself to the neck. She soaped all over and when the water was dirty, she let it out and started over again. She washed her hair with the tiny, complementary bottle of green shampoo provided by the hotel. The smell of the shampoo was so wonderful she ended up using the entire bottle.
After she was clean, she hated putting the old things on again, but it would just be for a little while. After a little shopping trip, she could put the old things in the trash, and once she was dressed in new clothes she’d feel like a new person. She would be a new person, with all the bad things behind her. No more stealing! No more running away! No more drinking!
But first a little drink.
When she first came into the room, she put her bottle of rye whisky on the dresser with the label facing out. It was just as pretty as a picture sitting there, with the afternoon sun catching it. It had to be one of the prettiest things in the world. She twisted off the cap and took a restorative swallow straight from the bottle. It burned her throat and made her eyes water, but—oh!—what a feeling it gave her! With the bath and the clean hair and the drink, she felt just like heaven!
But it was absolutely going to be her last bottle. Her farewell bottle. She would use this bottle to taper off and, once the bottle was empty, she’d never buy another. As God is my witness!
She hurried into her clothes, stepped into her shoes and ran the comb through her hair. She’d have just enough time to catch the uptown bus. Before she went out the door, she noticed in the mirror how smart she looked, clean as she was, with the alligator bag over her arm.
On her way down the stairs of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she had a bounce in her step. She felt better than she had felt in a long time, as long as she could remember. Life was beginning anew for her and she was going to take advantage of her good fortune and not let alcohol spoil her chances once again.
She gave the desk clerk a little smile and laid her key on the counter in front of him. It was a good feeling to know the key would waiting for her when she came back.
She went out the door into the bright sunshine and bent down to fix her shoe, which had been falling apart for weeks. When she stood up again and began walking down the stairs, she noticed a woman standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up at her. The woman had a familiar look. She had red hair and was wearing a fur coat. Where had she seen her in the last day or two? Standing behind her was a young police officer.
“That’s her!” the woman in the fur coat screamed. “That’s the bitch that stole my purse! I’d know her anywhere!”
Surprised out of her wits, Toots was unable to think. One part of her wanted to run, but another part of her knew it was no use.
The young policeman approached Toots in a threatening manner, towering over her. “It this true?” he asked. “Did you steal this lady’s bag at the bus station?”
“Why, no!” Toots said. “I haven’t been…”
“She’s lying!” the woman in the fur coat said. “What else would you expect from her kind?”
“Excuse me!” Toots said, once again finding her tongue. “You don’t even know me! I think you’d better be careful about who you’re accusing!”
“You piece of filth!” the woman in the fur coat said. She reached around the officer and grabbed the alligator bag from Toots and held it up in front of his face. “This is it! This is my purse! What more do you need to know?”
“You’d better look inside and make sure it’s yours,” the officer said.
“I don’t have to look inside! I know it’s mine!”
“All right. Look inside anyway. I want you to show me your ID, so we can make sure the purse belongs to you.”
“It’s mine, all right! See? Here’s my driver’s license! What more do you need to know before you take this trashy bitch away and lock her up?”
She stepped forward and began pummeling Toots in the face and head with her fists, first with one hand and then with the other.
“All right!” the policeman said. “That’s enough of that!”
“Why do they let people like that out on the streets?”
“Why do some people have it all?” Toots said.
The woman in the fur coat hit her once again with her fist, just above the ear, nearly knocking her out.
The officer put the handcuffs on Toots and led her to the police car just around the corner of the Knickerbocker Hotel. He opened the back door and gently pushed her into the back seat, while the woman in the fur coat stood and watched with a satisfied smile.
A small crowd of bums had gathered at the side of the Knickerbocker to watch. A few of them waved to Toots and blew her kisses. A wino named Louie stepped out of the group and snapped a picture of her just as she was getting into the police car, using a camera he had stolen from a man in the park.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp