WHEN I FINISHED touring the area with Alexandria police in what I knew would be a futile search for the thief, I went into the Birchmere to meet the friends who were joining me there to listen to some blue-grass music.
I told them my purse had been snatched in the parking lot by a kid who got away despite my struggling with him and yelling for help at the top of my lungs. There had been people in the parking lot and cars passing on the street but nobody even called the police.
One of the friends, a colleague at The Post, told me his story of being robbed at gunpoint near his house in Logan Circle and about having his house burglarized. His girlfriend had had her car broken into there.
When I told my hairdresser about the incident two days later, she replied with stories of her own. A large plant was taken from her back yard in Arlington, but that was only exasperating. Her sister had had her purse snatched at Connecticut and Van Ness one evening and when she wouldn't give it up, the two men beat her.
When I went to look for a new wallet, the woman behind the counter said her wallet had been lifted in a Georgetown restaurant.
Back at work on Monday, the security guard who took my picture for a new Post ID described an incident of carrying a large amount of cash and being accosted by a kid, accompanied by three others, asking for money. The guard told him no in what he hoped was a tough tone, got on an elevator without incident -- then let out a long sigh of relief that they hadn't pressed the point.
When I went to ask about getting a replacement paycheck for the one that had been stolen, the Metro editor's secretary described her own purse-snatching at a District gas station a couple of years ago, her chasing after the fellow and her feelings of outrage and violation.
Another reporter was in a cab recently when a man jumped in with her with a purse he had just snatched. He fled when the victim approached with two men and gave chase.
When I explained to the airline reservationist that I couldn't pay for the plane fare by credit card until a new one came in, and when I told her why, she said that she, too, had had her purse grabbed off her.
The stories went on and on. In the days following this incident, the most amazing thing to me was how common an experience this type of victimization is.
The statistics say it, but never before had it been brought home so clearly as hearing case after case from friend, acquaintance, and random stranger. If it wasn't a purse- snatching, it was a robbery or burglary.
Another colleague, just back from Beirut, said that of course there was a war going on over there but that he noticed right away that women felt far more comfortable walking on the street there than here at home.
What can be done? I understand better now the outpouring of feelings by New Yorkers after the subway shootings in December. Not only has victimization become so widespread, no one seems to know of any way to deal with it.
My rage was complete after that kid got away, my sense of violation and of frustration at being unable to do anything. At the home of friends that night -- where I stayed because the thief had the keys to my apartment and I didn't get the locks changed until the next day -- I fantasized. First it was about what I should have done (remember my college karate lessons, stomp his feet, heed my mother's advice to me as a child to "yank his hair and kick him in the business"). Then it was the type of violent things I would want to do to him if he were found.
But one of the worst things was realizing that having people around is no guarantee of any safety. This happened at 8:30 p.m. in a well-lit parking lot, with people getting out of cars and cars passing on the street.
When I pursued the thief as far as the street (which in a calmer moment I realized was not such a smart idea since he obviously was stronger than I), the cab driver who had stopped to watch just let him cross in front of him. The driver had locked his door and wouldn't open it for me. He finally rolled down the window so I could tell him to let me in because I wanted to pursue the kid. He couldn't do anything because he was "on call," he said.
I don't expect heroics. But is running to the nearest phone and calling 911 too much to ask? Most of us have had one of those horribly frustrating dreams where we are being attacked and can't find our voice to scream out. This was worse. I did scream out, and people heard -- but took no action.
I don't attribute it to apathy, though. I think they were paralyzed, a bunch of frozen people who couldn't think of what to do, even the simplest and most common sense thing like calling the cops.
The aftermath of the incident raised another curious point.
Most of the people I told the story to asked if the kid was black. (He was.) Why this question? I don't put it down to blatant racism myself, but I'm not sure what to make of it. One of those who told me about being accosted -- who is black himself -- spoke of his first concerns at seeing "four black guys smoking weed" in a lobby.
My theory is that as incidents of crime become so commonplace, we are trying to narrow down the range of people, places and situations to fear.
Clearly keeping to "good" areas of town doesn't protect us. We can't lock ourselves in as soon as the sun goes down, and anyway these things are happening in broad daylight, too. Maybe the idea is to determine that a certain type of person is more likely to victimize us so we can steer clear of them. Otherwise our lives will be consumed with fear.
The fear is difficult to cope with after an event like this. I used to think nothing of walking alone in a downtown street at night. No more. In the week since the incident, I've been literally looking over my shoulder and am wary of men passing me on the street. Now just walking to my car around the corner from work I find myself wondering -- if I were lunged at again would the doorman at the Madison do anything? Would he know what to do?
I find myself in Landmark shopping center in suburban Virginia at sunset on a Sunday as the stores are almost all closed, eyeing two teen- age boys with suspicion as they tap on a store window to get a clerk's attention inside. I go around another way so I won't pass them. This is ridiculous, I think, but then get anxious going to my car now that it is the only one in that far end of the darkened parking lot.
Other women I have talked to who have had this happen say it takes a long time to recover from it. When the kid leaped at me, my first feeling was of disbelief, then intense fear, then one of relief that he was after my purse and not my person. But then I was angry, and probably as more of an instinctive reaction than anything else I fought him as best I could.
Friends have warned since that this is not smart. But what is? Giving up? Allowing ourselves docilely to be victimized by any lawless person who comes along and decides to upset our lives?
That kid stole a lot more than the $50 which was the only thing of use to him. He robbed me of more than a day of work protecting myself from him by changing locks, stopping checks, canceling my credit card, getting new IDs and a drivers license.
He robbed me of order, which is important to me. He robbed me of a sense of security and control. And he robbed me of a naive belief that in a civilized society people can rely on others around them for assistance.
I really don't expect heroics. But couldn't someone have called 911?