It is raining out, and the woman who is waiting for the streetcar doesn't have an umbrella.
This isn't, of course, strictly true. The woman bought five umbrellas in the past year alone. Legally, she must have dozens of umbrellas out there in the world. The problem is that they currently are open over other people's heads.
There are, moreover, two umbrellas technically under her guardianship. There's a beige one she borrowed one day when it started raining in New York. It's at the office. There's a large yellow-and- red striped one of unknown origin. It's in her car trunk.
For the moment, therefore, she has been left high and wet, somewhere between home and work, pondering the transience of umbrellas.
Those who have followed the saga of this woman should know that she has never developed what you might call a relationship with an umbrella. Her connection to umbrellas has been a series of one-storm stands. At any moment, when the wind shifted, she left one behind and then picked up another.
Indeed, her past is scattered with umbrellas, like broken hearts. It is really quite a scandal. She is now dripping with remorse.
She furtively looks about her at people hiding their identity under blue-and- black nylon and considers how many of them are thieves. Back in the 19th century, when the English-speaking world sported identical umbrellas, Lord Bowen wrote:
"The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just's umbrella."
In late 20th century America, where all the standards have been shot to bits, the judgment isn't quite that simple. In truth, normally decent people who pay their taxes and never steal hotel towels and send lost sweaters back by return mail have umbrellas of dubious origin all over their rooms. Indeed, it's a greater crime in urban America to steal a parking space than an umbrella.
Was the black one covering the man in front of her left at an office late one rainy night? Was the green one behind her deserted in a restaurant coat rack?
For her own part, the woman in question has lost more umbrellas than she has lifted. Once she read an article in which consumers complained that the things fell apart. She'd never held on to an umbrella long enough for it to fall apart. Perhaps it was a character flaw. Perhaps, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Umbrellas, like faces, acquire a certain sympathy with the individual who carries them."
Maybe the umbrellas of stolid, dependable people live to ripe old ages, accompanying the same master on 20 years of daily walks, like dogs. Maybe the umbrellas of journalists have the half-life of newsprint, and are distributed widely.
She would prefer to believe that, ecologically speaking, she is into recycling. This is also possible. From time to time she spots a familiar handle in an unfamiliar hand. Maybe she is a part of some migrating pattern. For a moment she contemplates the idea that people should tag umbrellas rather like birds and see how far they travel in one lifetime.
Having run through a gamut of options, our wet philosopher is left mumbling in the rain until it occurs to her that perhaps certain things are not meant to be owned. They are not private property in the sense of a suit jacket or a chair or a car. They are by common practice, communal, rather like ball-point pens, matchbooks and water fountains.
As she comes to the conclusion that umbrellas should be shared, the streetcar arrives. There, in the corner of a seat, is the battered forgotten umbrella of a fellow traveler. She will give it a temporary home in her underground railway and then, undoubtedly, send it on its way.