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All Is Not Lost

A devastating mistake, a hopeful vigil, and the kindness of strangers.

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This is a story about doing good. Not the selfless Mother Teresa kind. Or the win-win, oh-let's-go-to-that-fund-raiser, the-food-will-be-superb-and-it'll-be-good-for-business kind, either.

It's about making one of those oh-shit-what'll-I-do-now decisions. You want to do the right thing, but (a) what is the right thing? and (b) do you really have the time and energy to do it? It's about a random act of goodness. The kind that could be news, except for an oversupply of random acts of badness. (Let's not name them here.)

By late April 2001, Boba Nestorovic--a civil engineer who works in Chicago--has planned her May trip back home to Belgrade, with stops in between, in pointed detail. She'll be gone for a month. Her itinerary will take her through Spain and Portugal. She'll link up with a group of friends from Chicago in Amsterdam, and they'll fly together back to their homeland. Her first visit in two years.

Of course you don't arrive from the land of milk and honey empty-handed. Boba has a big family. She needs lots of gifts. Special gifts she couldn't find or afford back home. As luck would have it, in late April and early May Chicago is a shopper's paradise. Lots of preseason sales and juicy bargains. Boba watches for sales. Hits the malls. Rummages through a multitude of little shops. Early and--this is Chicago, after all--often.

It's not irrelevant at this point to say a little more about Boba. She came here as an exchange student three years ago. Graduated from Bradley University, class of 2000. Her English, despite her protestations, is fluent. Slightly--you might even say delightfully--accented. She comes from a family brain-deep in advanced degrees (architecture, engineering, law). Her father is a microbiologist. She grew up surrounded by violins, pianos, cantatas, mazurkas, string quartets. Her dazzling dark eyes, her stunning smile, and her almost transmittable energy commend her upbringing.

If you're Boba, you're a seasoned world traveler. You know it's best to choose gifts that won't weigh you down physically or trigger red lights at border checkpoints. Ideally they should all fit into something that provides easy access and zero temptation to bored customs inspectors. So you choose a sturdy black shopping bag you picked up at the Limited. With care and love, you fold the shirts and scarves and toys, wrap them in tissue, and seal them with sticky labels on which you print each recipient's name. You place the heavy stuff in the bottom of the bag, slip in your graduation program, then layer the clothing items carefully, one on top of the other, till the bag is full.

Very full. You imagine lugging it from one airline boarding gate to another halfway across the world. Stuffing it into a succession of already engorged overhead compartments, cheek by jowl with god knows what. But, you think, that's life.

Then, what luck! Your friends leaving before you offer to take your bag with them. So on Sunday, April 29, around noon, you gratefully commend your precious gift bag to their care and wish them bon voyage.

On that very same Sunday, around noon, Chicago realtor Ro Lebedow is late. The open house for her listing in Lakeview runs from one to three. She'll have to fight traffic to get there from Bucktown. Fifteen minutes on a good day. But today it's bumper-to-bumper combat. Ashland's torn up. Damen's a parking lot. And she's got five sandwich boards to plant on prominent street corners.

Ro runs out the door.

"You always try to do too damn much," the author of this story barks unhelpfully after her.

Down four flights to her garage (elevator's too slow). She heaves the signs into the trunk of her black 1995 Avalon and speeds away.

She checks her watch. Just five minutes to go. Parking's impossible on Oakdale, but her karma's working. There's a spot. She rushes to pull the signs from her trunk.

But wait. What's that at the curb? A black shopping bag from the Limited, full of stuff. She glances around. Pedestrians pass. Anyone forget a package? No eye contact.

Ro checks the bag. Scarves, shirts, kids' toys. All have name tags. Hmmm. Written in Cyrillic. Gifts. It's a bag of gifts! But no ID. What does she do now?

"Leave it there. Whoever forgot it will come back for it," says one part of her brain.

"But someone's going to steal it," whispers a little street-smart voice.

"What should I do?" Ro asks a passing stranger.

Damned if she knows, and anyway she's in a hurry.

Three minutes to one and four more signs to plunk down. Ro stashes the shopping bag in the trunk of her car. Scribbles a note and tapes it to the car window facing the sidewalk: "Found: a shopping bag. If it's yours, call me." She adds her cell phone number. If no one responds, she'll search through the bag when she gets home, and with a little luck and a little deductive reasoning she'll identify the owner. Get it back into its rightful hands. It's the least she can do.

It is not irrelevant to the story to say a little more now about Ro Lebedow. She's a Chicago native (South Shore High School class of '57). Her eight grandchildren call her Bubbe, and her specialty is taking them on "adventures" to the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the CSO. She completed the 1984 Chicago Marathon. Last year's arthroscopic surgery on her left knee means only that instead of running four days a week, she swims at least that many days at East Bank. She keeps a windsurfing board at Wilmette's sailing beach. She has an uncanny knack for finding loose change on the street, which she saves in a "lucky money" box till she accumulates enough cash to buy a special delight (a wind chime from a vendor in New York City; a jack-in-the-box at a street fair in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca). She's sold residential real estate in Chicago for 14 years.

Two hours (and 45 handshakes and attempts to be charming) later, Ro's open house is over. No one has responded to the note on her car.

"Hi! I'm home!"

"What's that?"

"I found it on the street."

Carefully, Ro removes and inspects each item. Each is labeled, but with a first name only. Not a hint of ownership.

"Look how beautifully, how lovingly they're wrapped," Ro says.

A few clothing tags proclaim their origins. The Gap. Banana Republic. Ro phones the stores. Lots of sympathy, but lots of "See, if you don't have a sales slip, there's no way we can trace which store they were bought at..."

What about this? A graduation program from Bradley University. Maybe whoever owns the package is mentioned in the program. But there are hundreds of names, none circled, underlined, or marked in any way.

Monday morning Ro phones Bradley University. Talks with security. No, no one has reported a lost bag of gifts, but maybe the editor of the college newspaper can print a story on it and the owner will read it.

The editor calls back. "Why would you go to so much trouble to find the owner?" she asks.

"How could I not?" Ro answers.

She phones the police. No, nobody reported such a bag missing. "But if you bring it in," etcetera.

Right. And then what?

Ro sticks the bag in a corner while she tries to figure out what to do next.

Two days after Boba's friends pick up her bag of gifts, she gets a phone call. It's Natasha (not her real name).

A strange silence. Then, "Boba. I'm afraid we have some bad news."

Oh my god! Someone is sick! Hurt! Worse!

"I feel so bad, I couldn't tell you right away. But I must."

Boba's heart sinks.

"Your gifts, Boba. We lost them."

Later, Boba would say she was overcome by two waves of emotion. The first was relief. No one was hurt after all. No one had died. But then: What? You lost my gifts? "All of them?"

"The whole bag. I'm so sorry! We feel so bad. We must have left it somewhere."

Anger? Yes, of course. Yet, Boba tells herself, no one is perfect. But the gifts! There's no time left to replace them. And there's the problem of money. Not a huge sum, but for her, just out of college? It was a stretch the first time around. Besides, the preseason bargains are gone.

And what about her enthusiasm? The spark that sent her on the buying spree? She searches her heart for it, but it's been sucked into the same black hole where her gifts now reside.

"Boba? What's wrong? Why are you crying?" asks Joe, her building's doorman.

Boba tells him. He understands.

Fast-forward three weeks. The mystery bag in the corner has assumed a life of its own: brooding, lonely, sad, like an unread tragedy. But Ro has a plan. It's a Sunday. Another open house is scheduled for her listing on Oakdale. She drafts a notice about the bag and runs off 20 copies. She'll post the notices around the neighborhood. If no one responds, she'll donate the bag's contents to charity.

But she's running late again. Same traffic problem, only worse. She finds a parking place. But how's she going to post her notices and still get to her open house on time?

Deus ex machina! A young man shouts from across the street. He points to Ro's open house sign. "You're in real estate, aren't you?"

Ro nods.

Dodging traffic, he jogs across the street and says, "My name's Barry Stoltze. I'm a mortgage lender. May I give you my card?"

Here's a little more about Barry Stoltze. He's the 30-ish owner of the Mortgage Department, a mortgage lending business in Des Plaines. He lives in Lakeview. "True," he said later, "I approached Ro to introduce myself as a loan officer who lives in the area. And she promised to send some business my way if I posted her signs for her. But that's not really why I ended up doing it. Being in the business myself eight years, I know the pressure she works under, especially on weekends. You skip meals. It seems you can never catch up. Yet somehow Ro still made time to do the right thing. No, more than the right thing. I was touched. How could I not help her?"

Two hours later (30 more handshakes, 30 more attempts to be charming), Ro departs her open house, and when she hits the street she notes with joy her bag found signs blanketing the neighborhood. When she looks at one close up, she sees that Barry didn't use the tape she gave him, but a better, stronger, weatherproof kind.

By then, three weeks have passed since Boba heard the bad news about her gifts. But life goes on. That evening a friend phones and asks her out to dinner.

No thanks. Too busy. "I'm leaving for Europe in just five days!" she explains.

"But Boba, I know this place that's got great mushrooms."

Mushrooms! Her weakness. "On second thought, let's go," she tells the friend.

As they walk to the restaurant, her friend runs out of cigarettes, so they turn down a street Boba's never been on to hit a tobacco store. As they leave the store Boba spots a notice taped to a utility pole. The words "black shopping bag" stand out in large, bold type. Tentatively, as if unsure she isn't hallucinating, she moves closer and reads:

Found

Sunday, April 29

in the vicinity of

435 Oakdale

Black

Shopping Bag

containing gifts.

If it's yours, please phone

312-640-9255

and identify the contents so

we can return it to you.

Later that evening Ro Lebedow checks her voice mail.

The first message plays back. Whoever it is, the woman's so excited Ro can barely understand her. "That's my black shopping bag! It's a miracle!" the woman is saying. And she rattles off an inventory of her precious gifts.

Ro phones Boba at once. An answering machine. Ro leaves a message, and a few hours later Boba calls back, overflowing with thanks. She will pick up the bag. She doesn't have a car, but where do you live, she asks. Perhaps a friend, or a cab.

"I'll bring it to you," Ro says.

Boba can't let Ro do that. But Ro insists, and she's a hard woman to refuse.

The next night Ro heads over to Boba's. She knows the building. She's sold a condo or two there. She even knows Joe the doorman.

Joe can't believe it was Ro who found Boba's shopping bag. "Boba cried for two days straight after they told her they'd lost the bag," Joe says. He phones up to her apartment.

Moments later, the elevator doors part. Boba emerges. Tall and young, smiling and wiping tears from her cheeks. She carries a bouquet of pink tulips and holds them out to Ro.

"I don't know how to thank you!" she says.

Ro takes the flowers and hugs her. "You already have," she says, and the black shopping bag changes hands.

They're both enjoying a good cry now, and talking at once. Ro tells her story to Boba, and Boba tells hers to Ro.

A week later, Ro is in Boba's neighborhood again. She spots one of her notices on a utility pole, rain spattered and sun stained, but as proud and secure as the day Barry posted it. It occurs to Ro that Boba must be in Spain by now. Maybe even Belgrade. She reaches up and carefully peels the notice from the pole. She'll keep it as a memento.

Just then a mounted policeman trots over and reins his steed in beside her.

"That your sign?" he asks.

It is, Ro confesses, wondering what the penalty is for posting signs without a permit. Or for taking them down.

"I read it the other day. Ever find the bag's owner?" he asks.

"I sure did," Ro says.

"Good for you," he says. He tosses her a little salute, then canters off into the waning light of what Ro decides is a gorgeous Chicago spring evening--even though it's 55 degrees, a light drizzle has begun to snarl traffic, and somewhere, no doubt, a random act of badness is happening to someone.

Coda: It's late August. Boba and Ro and the writer sit slurping a nice cabernet and sampling plates of hearty Serbian cuisine at Skadarlija on North Kedzie. At Boba's insistence, it's her treat ("In my culture you cannot refuse me!").

The floor show has started: a popular Serbian chanteuse, an accordion, a keyboard, full electronic reverb. Boba knows all the songs and sings along in Serbian. And Russian.

After consuming more wine at one sitting than she has in decades, Ro wonders aloud if they would play "Dark Eyes" ("Ochi chornye"), the Middle European drunk's equivalent of "Melancholy Baby." Boba excuses herself and slips away into the darkness. She is next seen at the bandstand whispering to the vocalist, without apology or a hint of embarrassment.

And with but the gentlest exchange of smiles, the band obliges. It is, Ro thinks--and all at the table agree--the sweetest rendition, the most beautiful and heartfelt, she has ever heard. And in the souls of all who toasted the fates that brought these former strangers from different worlds together in Chicago that night before September 11, it resonates still.

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