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PPSD (Post-Pick-Pocketing Distress Disorder)
by Elaine Tassy | 2009
My friend Malathi and I were riding a hot and crowded bus from the South Indian city of Chennai to the center of town a day or two after Christmas. From there we'd go our separate ways: Malathi to a job interview, me to catch the second of three buses to Mamallapuram, a hopping touristy fishing village an hour south the last town I'd visit before leaving India in January.
I sat on the aisle with my weekend bag on my lap, my zippered black macramé purse to the right of it. Inside it: a paperback novel, hand sanitizer, pens, a pad with people's phone numbers, and my black leather wallet. In the wallet was my passport, the rest of my cash, and every credit and identification card I owned. In 2004 this wallet fell out of my purse in a movie theater on a three-month trip to Sausalito, and a man spent a month locating me and returned it with everything in place. Malathi sat by the window, wrapped up in preparation for her interview, while I thought about seeing Abbas (like Malathi, he used only one name), a jewelry designer and souvenir shop owner I'd met during an earlier part of my trip. I was supposed to call him when I got to Mamallapuram so he could meet me later.
On the bus, a puffy, disheveled Indian woman with salt-and-pepper hair in a greasy ponytail pressed up against me in the aisle. She was in her fifties or sixties, and her face looked like a brown paper bag that someone had crumpled up and flattened back out. She was standing so close to me that she nearly smothered me with bags suspended from her limbs like garlic bulbs. It was my third week into the trip and I'd gotten adjusted to bodies being pressed up against each other and minimal personal space in public areas, but it seemed weird for her to stay so close to me after the bus crowd thinned out. I glanced at her with irritation when she didn't move, and she gave me a look I thought nothing of at the time it was kindly, almost pleading. Because it felt too mean to return her look by asking her to move away from me, I sat still and said nothing.
When Malathi and I stepped from the bus to the crowded, colorful, noisy streets of downtown Chennai, formerly Madras, I reached inside to check the contents of my purse, as I often did without thinking, and noticed it was unzipped halfway and felt lighter than usual. I opened it.
My wallet wasn't there.
Wait, it has to be, I thought. I felt around, awaiting a rush of relief once I touched the soft black leather rectangle I handled several times a day. But all I found was my change purse, hand sanitizer, book, pad and pens. It didn't seem possible that my trip could get any more difficult. I'd already logged in three rocky, life-changing weeks: I was supposed to volunteer with a non-profit women's research organization, but the project didn't exist; I had visited a Bangalore ashram that seemed more like a cult, and I had spent a week in Auroville, advertised as an international experiment in diversity living, a place with repellant vibes diametrically opposed to the peace-loving melting pot its website led me to expect. Luckily, Malathi, whose apartment was furnished with nothing but a 2" thick mattress, was a former volunteer of the organization I'd come to work with and she let me stay with her between ventures.
The antidote to this challenging trip was supposed to begin later that night. I was going to meet Abbas, who I first met and hung out with every day while I was in Auroville. Business in his shop was slow because of road construction blocking access to it, so he was going to take time off and come to Mamallapuram, a dot on the map along the Bay of Bengal, where he used to live and run a similar shop.
Now that my wallet was gone, the antidote went with it. There was no longer a trip for me to go on. I stood on the corner in horror and suddenly realized that the woman on the bus who'd pressed against me stayed so close because she was extracting my wallet, concealing this with bags she'd buried me under. I was sitting right there doing nothing, and didn't feel a thing.
My throat started swelling up and I felt I was about to cry. I felt the sickening combustion of becoming stranded, helpless and lost, without identity, money or resources in a country and another hemisphere where I didn't know the language. I'd made two good friends Malathi and Abbas but I was still bewildered, as if I were alone in another galaxy. This both paralyzed me and expanded my sense of disaster. I began berating myself for not holding onto my purse zipper with my fingers, not being more concerned about the passenger standing at my side. I must have also been in shock, because I believed I could've chased the bus, forced my way on and gotten my wallet back, then continued on to Mamallapuram as if this had never happened. When I asked Malathi if she thought it possible, she tried to control herself from smirking in disbelief and said no.
Having no passport, I could, I realized, get stuck in India. My departure was January 2, and of the remaining five days, one was New Year's and two were weekends, leaving me two full days to get a replacement passport at the American Embassy. Malathi, an idealistic do-gooder from a rural village, was average height and deep brown-skinned. In her green salwar kameeze and a curly ponytail, she pulled out her cell phone and swung into action. She postponed her job interview and called the police while a crowd of barefoot auto-rickshaw drivers gathered to rubberneck the situation. I felt already so beaten by the trip that I had no room for an event of this heft, so while she was telling me to write things on a piece of paper that would have to go on a police report, I was numbly obeying while biting my fingernails and rocking back and forth.
It took at least an hour for the police to come. Waiting, I felt like some exposed, vulnerable road-kill; I sensed everyone could tell by looking. The police had me write a statement that included the wallet contents, and when the paperwork was done, Malathi said the pick-pocketing must have happened for a reason that maybe something worse would have happened if I went to Mamallapuram. She went to her interview and sent me with a house key back to her apartment.
On the long ride through Chennai I was overcome with tension in an auto-rickshaw, a yellow or black three-wheeled vehicle for three that's both an upgrade on the man-operated rickshaw of years ago and a costlier public transportation choice than a bus. Auto-rickshaws don't have side doors, so passengers are exposed to endless honking, bumping and polluted gray air. Midway into the ride, I decided it was possible that my wallet wasn't gone that it was actually in one of two places. One was the inexpensive diner we ate in before getting on the bus. I got off the auto-rickshaw near the diner and rushed to our front table so I could reach under it to pick up my wallet, which would be waiting for me there totally chameleon-like, invisible to the dozens of people who'd sat there since we left four hours before.
When that wasn't the case, I walked home through the dark streets and alleyways lined with stalls dry cleaners, restaurants, pharmacies and bakeries and zipped into Malathi's apartment and gave every surface a quick inspection. Many times I've thought that I lost my wallet, only to find it on the front seat of my car. I knew I had a .001% chance of this happening now, but that was all I had to hold on to. The expectation of finding it, although weak, was still intoxicating, and the disappointment when it wasn't there was stronger than I imagined, given my odds.
Having exhausted my search, as implausible every second of it was, I was left with the horrible task of going to the cybercafé to e-mail my friends and family, hoping someone was going to log on during the days between Christmas and New Year's. In about five e-mails it scorched me to write, I told my friends what happened and to please call my mother, where my sister and brother would be for the holidays. I wanted to make sure someone called home just in case no one in my family was checking e-mail. I also sent an e-mail to my older sister, asking her to send me a scanned-in copy of my birth certificate and to stop my credit cards; I e-mailed my younger brother, asking for some emergency cash. I also asked my friend Alison to get into my apartment and find my birth certificate and scan that in and e-mail it to me, just in case my sister's effort didn't work. I gave everyone Malathi's cell phone number since she didn't have a home phone.
The whole mission drained me writing about it gave me further proof of my dire straits. Then I walked less than a block to the telecentre to call Abbas, who was supposed to be meeting me later that night.
"Something horrible happened." I was feeling very twisted.
My voice cracked when I said I was pick-pocketed. He was the first person I verbalized it to aside from Malathi and the police. He listened to the details, groaning a few times. He said his hands were shaking and that he thought it was his fault, because he suggested Mamallapuram. He offered to send me money that would arrive in fifteen minutes (money, I learned later, I wouldn't be able to collect without some form of ID, none of which I had anymore). He told me to call him when I got back from the Embassy the next day.
When I got back to the apartment, Malathi was still not home. Alone there, I felt the same as when my cat disappeared for two days: Completely out of my mind with worry, I spent an hour looking around my apartment complex, but gave up, thinking she could've trotted off to anywhere, only to be left with a nagging guilt that I'd find her if I kept trying.
Malathi arrived with take-out for both of us from the diner. I was too beside myself with nerves to think about eating a loss of culinary interest that has never happened in my adult life. We sat on the living room floor eating masala dosa and talking about going to the Embassy the next day. My biggest fear was that I wouldn't be able to board the plane because the Embassy would need more time or more identification of U.S. citizenship than I had in order to issue me a replacement passport. I was in for was a knuckle-biting mission to get home. All other bets were off.
On Malathi's way home from her interview, my friend Racheal called her cell phone, and she tried back after we finished eating. Racheal is an Australian Maori friend and I've known her since 1999. She now lives in Ohio, and we share a lot of interests, especially yoga and creativity. Hearing her voice, her concern and her accent from so far away filled me with chills. I almost started to cry. After the trip she told me when she heard my voice she knew I was going to be alright, and that night on the phone with me from halfway around the world she went on the Embassy's website to tell me which documents I was supposed to download. I wrote a list on the back of an envelope.
My sister and I are not close, so when she called next I was touched that she asked, "Are you hurt? Do you need anything else?" She was the only person who asked if anyone assaulted me while taking my wallet. I can't imagine violence mixed in the pick-pocketing itself provoked enough PTSD. She said she'd scan in a copy of my birth certificate, and my brother would send me $500 by Western Union which I could pick up with the answer to a security question. I was sure he picked something like our mother's maiden name.
A few hours later, my friend Jackie called after reading my e-mail, which had a subject line of something like "URGENT PROBLEM. PLEASE HELP ME."
She said, "How are you doing?" She and I have been close friends since graduate school in the late 90's.
"I'm fucked up, man." I started laughing. She told me this could happen to anyone and that I was going to get through it. She talked to me on one phone line, and, using call-waiting, got my sister, then my friend Alison, on another line so I could ask Jackie questions I wanted her to ask them. My sister told her she wasn't sure where she could get the birth certificate copy scanned in; Alison couldn't get into my apartment because my spare key was not where I left it, but with the cat-sitter, who wasn't home. This meant I probably would not have a copy of my birth certificate to give to the Embassy. I thought there must have been cases like this before, but I also knew the likelihood of the Embassy staffers being harder to cope with had just skyrocketed.
I'd quit smoking in 1994, but I worked my way through about five Indian cigarettes that night, and I can't imagine another time when I needed them more. Sometimes when I feel stressed I take three vitamin B-12 pills, which Jackie refers to as vitamin B-36. That night I told her I was taking B-144. I also said I'd been under the impression that after making it through a challenging seven-month trip to Haiti in 2001, I could conquer any trip, any time, any place.
Jackie's answer, which made me cry with laughter, was: "India's like, 'I don't think so, bee-yotch!'"
I went to bed at about 5 a.m and got a few hours of unrestful sleep. The next morning I went to the cybercafé, hoping to find an e-mail from either my sister or from Alison, with an attached birth certificate. With that and the money my brother was sending, I'd be able to pay the $97 fee for the replacement passport and have cash to last me until I got back. I saw in my inbox responses from most of the people I'd contacted, but none of them had an attached birth certificate copy. We'd have to check another cybercafé when we got near the Embassy, probably hours later.
Malathi, who was on vacation from work, was almost ready to go on yet another long and taxing ride through the city to the Embassy in an auto-rickshaw when I returned home. She had bathed in the bathroom outside her apartment, scooping from a bucket cups full of water over her head, soaping up and rinsing while standing in front of a few slats for use as foot support while squatting over a hole. I had done the same an hour before. She was putting her stick-on red velvet bindi on her forehead when I got back.
We were nearly ready to leave when her cell phone rang. I sat on the steps outside her apartment waiting, holding a different purse than the one from the day before. It contained maybe three dollars in Indian rupees my entire net worth at the moment. I'd already given Malathi the purse I was using when my wallet disappeared. I couldn't use it anymore. I wasn't sure I'd be keeping the clothes I had on that day either.
A few minutes into the phone call, Malathi was smiling, laughing, talking excitedly in Tamil and looking at me. I thought I heard her say, "They got wallet back," but, operating on so little sleep, I then thought I must be hallucinating the words I wanted to hear. But the chance I heard her correctly had me waiting with new anxiety on the steps, resisting getting my hopes up until she hung up.
"That was the driver!" she said. This was a woman named Easwari who'd driven me in her auto-rickshaw several times, who once let me use her cell phone to call Malathi, and whose number I wrote on the e-ticket in my wallet so she could take me to the airport when it was time for me to leave.
What Easwari told Malathi changed the rest of my trip: somebody had dropped my wallet off at the post office, with my passport and a bunch of credit cards in it, but no cash. When the post office staff found Easwari's name and phone number on my e-ticket, they called and asked if she could locate me.
I felt like someone had slid a pin into my balloon of anxiety, and as it deflated I slumped forward on the step and started crying with relief. In that moment the beauty and good in every little thing was magnified.
Within a half-hour, Easwari picked us up at Malathi's apartment, since buses were now out of the question, and she appointed herself our driver for the day: the trip to Mamallapuram was now back on, as long as I got through the steps to undo the wallet theft. But I quickly developed some kind of yet-to-be labeled anxiety syndrome, Post-Pick-Pocketing Stress Disorder (PPSD) perhaps, because I was sacked with nerves the minute I got into Easwari's yellow auto-rickshaw. I sat in the back smoking, waiting like an impatient baby for Malathi to get in so I wouldn't be left alone for one minute. I felt self-conscious and anxious, in fear something could go wrong collecting the wallet and money. I didn't think I'd relax until both were in hand. The three of us came up with a game plan with the two of them doing most of the planning, because I was too uptight. The panic wasn't wearing off; it lingered around me like a halo of skunk spray. Our plan would be: first stop at the Western Union, then go to the post office, then go back to Malathi's apartment. From there I'd re-pack for the trip to meet Abbas, and Malathi and Easwari would whisk me to Mamallapuram in the auto-rickshaw.
On the ride to Western Union, I must have unzipped and checked the scant contents of my purse a dozen times, although no one got on the auto-rickshaw the whole time who could've meddled with it. The post office had already called Western Union about my wallet, and when we got to the Western Union on a busy center-city street, a dapper gray-haired man expecting me said the money had arrived, but I had to get my passport first because without ID I couldn't claim it. I nervously kicked myself for not thinking about that ahead of time.
From there we rode to the post office. The streets were noisy and clogged with pollution-spewing, congested traffic, interrupted by pedestrians who walked oblivious to the activity. All the commotion was making me batty. On the way, Easwari, clearly not used to trips like this, decided we had to stop off for some roadside tea and snacks, as if this were a casual social occasion with no urgency whatsoever. On street corners all over Chennai, men have carts or stalls where they make delicious chai with hot milk and fresh cardamom pods, and I loved drinking it with a few deep-fried snacks they also sell, but wasn't in the mood to slow down for a treat. Slow down we did, though, and we sat by the roadside in the shade of the auto-rickshaw drinking chai and eating fried spicy snacks on pieces of unwrapped newspaper. The food felt good it was the first I'd had since learning this crisis was about to be averted.
Twenty minutes later while we were still looking for the post office, Easwari pulled over again. This time, for no reason at all, she took out her cell phone and called her sister to tell her in rapid and gleeful Tamil what was going on. I sat behind her, watching her head bob from side to side and her hands move with each detail. These voluntary rest-stops were driving me insane: our delicate operation might get upended at any moment. We must have spent an hour between the Western Union office and the post office, probably the second worst hour of my trip, following closely behind the hour my wallet disappeared.
When we got to the post office, a deskbound man in a cluttered, windowless room was holding my wallet. "Can I see some ID please?" he asked. Malathi and Easwari, who escorted me inside because I was giving them an accurate impression I wasn't up to these tasks alone, told him all my ID was inside the wallet. His body language a head-bob, a weird glance, and prickly mouth movement led me to believe he hadn't anticipated hearing such an answer; he seemed to think that his holding all of my ID was no deterrent to my ability to show him some. Then he asked me what I was doing in India and what my profession was, as if those answers would factor into whether he would give me my wallet. I could tell my passport was there because it caused the wallet flap to strain. My sister had by then cancelled my credit cards, so I didn't care about them, and other cards like my work ID and driver's license could be replaced.
When he finally gave it to me, I opened the wallet and every single thing a class picture of my nephew, my car registration form, my graduate school ID I'd been carrying around since 1999 to get a student discount on movies was there. All that was missing was the stack of about 7,500 clean rupee notes I'd gotten from the bank a few days before the last $200 I had left to exchange, but I could not possibly have cared less. The relief was so sweet, such a crumbling of brittle angst. Malathi and Easwari's moods lifted as we got back in the auto-rickshaw and returned to the Western Union office. For them, the worst was over; for me, I still had to tame this beast that was my anxiety, and I didn't see how that was going to be possible until I took hold of the money and got out of Chennai. Once I fled the scene of the crime and made it to Mamallapuram, my tension meter would flicker out of the red zone.
It took another half hour to plough our way through traffic before we returned to the Western Union office. The guy I spoke to before took a look at my passport and prepared to give me the money while I tried to conceal an adrenaline rush that left me almost out of breath. He looked up from what he was doing to ask for the ten-digit control number I needed to provide for security purposes. My brother said I would have to answer a security question to get the money, but never mentioned a control number. I told this to the guy, but he said there was no security question and without the number he wasn't giving me any cash. I was vibrating with anxiety, but I tried to remain on auto-pilot as I walked across the street to the tele-centre to call home for the number.
It was about 2 o'clock then, which meant it was about 2 am when I reached my mother, who was in a deep sleep. Luckily my brother, who'd since departed from his holiday visit, had left the Western Union slip at her house, but because my mom hadn't completely woken up, she couldn't understand what I meant when I said "ten-digit control number."
"Can you spell it?" she asked. I really thought I would lose my mind then in desparation. Finally she located the number and read it to me, and I read it back to be sure.
When I crossed the street and returned to the Western Union for the third time that day, the only person behind the glass-encased counter was the man who'd just sent me to get the ten-digit control number; the rest of his team was sitting on the waiting area chairs, sharing a family-style hot lunch. They were leaning forward in their seats, eating from metal tins with their hands, as do many Indians. The dapper man behind the counter said I had to wait until they were done. I fumed, wondering why he couldn't give me the money himself. Intellectually overmatched for his clerical job, he was affording himself power, I thought, by inconveniencing me to make his otherwise mind-numbingly dull work worthwhile.
Finally they were through eating lunch and got back to their posts. It took two or three people and multiple forms and calculator usages before they put five hundred dollars in rupees in an envelope and gave it to me. I felt a surge of relief slipping it into my purse, but I was also especially protective of it now.
Malathi and I walked back to the auto-rickshaw and got in, and as we continued on to her apartment through heavy traffic, I checked my purse every few minutes. Now that I knew I was vulnerable to pick-pocketing, I felt unstable, unsure I wasn't getting fleeced at any moment. Once we got back, I packed a bag for Mamallapuram, where I would spend the next five days. After a few minutes of packing, chatting and tip-giving, we got into Easwari's get-away rickshaw. On the highway, beside Malathi in the backseat while Easwari talked nonstop, I felt removed from the center of danger, headed into a safety zone.
< We had gone about halfway to Mamallapuram when a uniformed police officer stopped us at a checkpoint. I was anxious to arrive, and I couldn't imagine how these cops could present yet another obstacle, that I could meet another one so soon. The frantic officer asked in Tamil if we could get out of the auto-rickshaw. I didn't understand his words, but I could hear his urgency as he gestured with his hands for us to hurry. He spoke to Easwari with the same excitement, and she nodded her head. Then two more officers came rushing toward us carrying a man in their arms, one officer holding the man's right limbs, the other officer holding the left. He looked about thirty-five, and had short black hair, dark brown skin and a mustache. His eyes were open but he was unconscious. As soon as they folded him into the back seat of the auto-rickshaw, Easwari took off.
The man had just tried to kill himself and Easwari was dropping him off at the emergency room and would pick us up afterward, Malathi told me the officer said. While we were waiting, he and Malathi discussed the details. The police officer said the man had ingested some sort of poison. Malathi read his suicide note because of his reputation being destroyed by another man, it said, he didn't want to live anymore; he was leaving behind a wife and two children.
As that information sank in, my little stolen wallet problem began to devolve into what felt like navel-gazing. In India, widows are treated as pariahs, often unable to get jobs, plunged into isolation and poverty. Searching for spouses for their children, widowhood is a strike against the family. If the man were to die, his family's life would immediately change. Malathi, the officer and I sat on a bench in the police substation waiting in contemplation. When Easwari returned she said she left the man in the emergency room without finding out if he'd survive. It took awhile to stop thinking about him.
Shortly after we got back on the road, Easwari treated us to lunch at a fancy restaurant with the tip I gave her earlier. We ordered an appetizer of fried dough with tamarind and mint chutney, three different entrees, and a fourth we all shared. The celebratory feast bonded us in mutual relief. We didn't talk much; I was relishing the slow-down of the tension I'd been infecting all of us with, and enjoying every bite of the food and the company of two women whose input shaped this resolution.
Back in the auto-rickshaw I thought about the pleading look the pick-pocketer gave me on the bus. It had seemed too out of context in a pick-pocketing situation to mean nothing. Maybe the look was saying, Don't worry doll, as soon as I lighten your wallet of the cash I'll give it back, or Sorry for the emotional hell you're about to go through, but I have to pay my granddaughter's school fees.
Later that night I made it to Mamallapuram. As soon as the guest house manager showed me my room I started investigating the security situation. I tested the locks on the cabinets where I planned to keep my spending money and practiced opening and locking the night table drawers. I could not have left the room until my security check was complete. Away from Chennai, I began to unwind.
"You are so lucky," Abbas said when we were walking on the beach the afternoon he arrived. I spent the next few days visiting the seaside rock sculptures, getting an Ayurvedic massage and steam bath, eating great meals, playing with kids at an orphanage, reading and sunbathing at a pool near my guesthouse, writing about the trip in my journal and hanging out with Abbas and his friends. During those peaceful, low-action days, I felt the stirring of a new brand of gratitude.
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