Once upon a time, Noreen and Richard Jones were driving down an L.A. street when fate reached down with a funny finger and tapped them on the shoulder. It happened this way:
Picture a starry night over Westwood Boulevard. The Joneses are headed home from a party when they hear a scream. Noreen looks to the right just in time to see a woman fall to the ground at the curb and another car speed off.
Thinking it might be a hit-and-run, Noreen writes down the license number of the offending vehicle and cell-phones it to 911. Surely, the cops will jump right on it and the bad guys will be in chains before the clock bongs midnight.
As it turns out, it isn't a hit-and-run but a drive-by purse-snatch, an exercise in ingenuity that surely must be the first of its kind. The victim, whose name is Sue, had been getting into her car when a convertible with two men in it drove up. One of the men reached out, grabbed her handbag and away they went, hellbent into history.
Noreen and Richard stop to help. Sue is screaming and crying that she's from Florida and the purse contained all their money and their credit cards. Well, she didn't actually scream they were from Florida, but she did scream the rest. And they are from Florida. Pensacola.
The other part of "they" is her mother, who is waiting for Sue in front of a deli some distance away. Why she is there and Sue is here is never made clear. Noreen tells the cops everything she knows and, in a burst of compassion, Richard says if there's anything he can do for the unfortunate victims, just let him know. He gives Sue his card, which contains the address and telephone number of their Bel-Air home. Bad move.
Jones is not really their last name. Richard is a retired vice president of Conde Nast International and doesn't want his real name mentioned. It was bad enough that he gave it to Sue, whose last name is unknown to them. It is similarly unknown to me, because a detective involved in the case won't return my telephone calls. Just think of her as Pensacola Sue.
At 1 the next morning, the police call and go over details of the crime with Noreen for the second time. Then at 9 the same morning, a Sunday, they call again and go over the whole thing in a process of repetition that is wearing Noreen's patience paper thin.
She keeps asking if they'd caught the thieves yet, since she had given them the license number of their car. The cop on the phone replies that there are no detectives on duty over the weekend but that they'll get on it first thing Monday. By that time the bad guys could be in El Paso, but that's just the way the LAPD does things. Nice and easy.
That same afternoon, Sue, using Richard's business card, calls and wonders if she and her mother can stay with them until they get back on their feet. The question catches Noreen off guard and without thinking, she says, er, yeah, OK, sure.
When she hangs up, Richard says she's crazy! It could be a scam! Troubled by this possibility, Noreen waits in the driveway and when Sue and her mother arrive, she says they can't stay there, but she'll call the police again and ask them for help. The cop on duty repeats that they can't do anything until Monday. Frustrated by their inefficiency, Noreen screams at him that if she's ever going to commit a crime in L.A., she'll do it on a weekend because she'll have two days to get away! And she hangs up, bang!
In between calls, Noreen learns to her surprise that Sue has a sister living in West L.A. When she inquires with no small degree of incredulity why they don't just stay with her, Sue explains that it is a small studio apartment and there is no room for them. Also, her sister owns a cat and her mother is allergic to cats. Oh.
And by the way, Sue's sister is an actress and has a part in a play at the Tiffany Theater, which they, Noreen and Richard, ought to see. Sue herself is an aspiring actress and came to L.A. from dreary Pensacola in order to get into show biz.
At this point, most people would have probably chased Sue and her old mother down the street with a stick, but Noreen, despite everything, is still possessed of the sweet milk of human kindness and continues making calls to find them a place to stay.
She finally reaches a Det. Maureen Geller in the LAPD's Westside Division. Geller is involved in a victim assistance program and by that night has found Sue and Mom temporary accommodations. Then the next morning, a Monday, another detective calls and asks Noreen to go over every detail again, which she does, for the fifth time. Then she says wearily, "I guess you haven't caught the thieves yet?" The detective says not yet, but they're on it.
Sick of it all, Noreen and Richard finally settle back into a normal routine, trying to forget the whole mind-bending experience. This lasts until the day before the Academy Awards are to be announced. The phone rings. It's Pensacola Sue. She is wondering, since Richard once published Vanity Fair, was there any chance of getting her into a post-Oscar party?
There is no equivocating this time. Noreen says simply no, and hangs up. They don't hear from Sue again, but it wouldn't surprise them if she turned up at some future date playing the part of Blanche in a new rendition of "A Streetcar Named Desire." The kid's got chutzpah.
The drive-by purse-snatchers? They're probably in Tennessee by now, refining their technique and boasting about the splendid new use for cars in funny old L.A.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.