John Schulter answered the phone in the middle of the second ring. For 9 a.m. on a Monday, that was a stunning upset, as the sportswriters so relentlessly say.
"No, you didn't wake me," John said. "And no, I don't have the damn thing back yet."
A little background: John Schulter is editor, publisher, typist, you-name-it of the InTowner, a monthly newspaper that he produces in the dining room of his 18th Street apartment.
The InTowner is a cleverly written sheet, featuring talk-of-the-streets gossip columns and local crime news that the other media never bother to cover. Although Schulter's frequent spoofing is a little too off-color for many readers, his paper has had a loyal following for 14 years around Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.
For the same 14 years, Schulter has had three personal trademarks: a mane of red hair, a basso profundo voice -- and a brown fur hat. Complete with all three, he is a familiar sight on the sidewalks around Columbia Road and Connecticut Avenue -- delivering papers, gathering gossip, saying hello.
But on Feb. 13, this bulletin clattered over the police teletype:
"John J. Schulter, adult, rpts two subjects snatched his frontier-style fur hat 1700 blk Columbia Rd NW. LOF B/M (look out for black male) 19, 6' 2", knit hat, blue jacket with white trim #2 B/M 5' 10", dk complex, blk coat."
As John wrote, in the March InTowner:
"To think that this could happen to me! The Man! Washington's Number Two Crime Reporter! And after 14 years of ferreting out the felonious in the Third District. Only Al Lewis of The Post has more seniority. But then Al never wears a hat." (Actually, he does, John. But it has never been ripped off.)
The Vanishing Schulter Chapeau wasn't just run-of-the-mill, either, John emphasized. "It had ear flaps to protect me from hearing what I didn't want to hear from critics of this high-level journal."
And the hat had a history. "It had been passed down to me through six generations from one of my Indian ancestors, Chief Gitchee Goomie of the Osage tribe as he lay dying next to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn," John wrote.
"Throughout the ages, the hat was reputed to have magical powers . . . . However, let me remind the dude who snatched it that the magical spell will be broken if it passes into the hands of anybody but a descendant of old Gitchee Goomie . . .
"He who steals my nice, anti-hypothermia coonskin hat not only robs me of that which enables me to brave the winds of Columbia Road, but leaves me bloody, bowed and absolutely bereft of compassion. God will punish him."
Still, John isn't relying on either God or the police. The other day, he approached Big Moe, a noted 18th Street numbers racket operative, and told him to put out the word:
Either the hat comes back, or The InTowner blows the lid off the neighborhood numbers racket.
Moe just smiled. The hat, meanwhile, hasn't reappeared. The numbers racket, meanwhile, hasn't disappeared. So much for the power of journalism.
John told me he isn't desperate yet. His Walter Mitty scenario has him walking down Connecticut one day when he spies the thief coming toward him, wearing the hat.
The thief cuts and runs. Heels blazing, Schulter chases him down, grabs him by the collar, shoves him against the side of a building a la Kojak and demands the hat. The thief meekly complies. John jams it back on the head that descended from Gitchee Goomie and stalks proudly off.
Implausible? "Listen," says John Schulter, "you can't fantasize about women all the time."