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Personal Statement: I mugged my grandma's mugger

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
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By Erin Kirkland, Managing Photo Editor
Published August 29, 2012

You know how some people say they’ve had a life-defining moment? A flash of revelation where the world makes sense and they’ve found the meaning of life once and for all?

Well, this isn’t it. But I promise it’s just as entertaining, if not more.

Let me set the scene for you: June 12, 2001. Slightly after 10 a.m. Central European Time. Rome, Italy. My parents, grandmother and I had just endured a total of 10 hours in the air (not including a layover) before arriving at our final destination, Roma, where we were prepared for a two-week trip immersed in the finest Italian cuisine and culture.

After grabbing our luggage, we walked to the rental car concourse so we could leave the airport and drag our tired bodies into a hotel to get some much-needed sleep. As my parents walked up to the Hertz desk, they left strict instructions for my grandmother and 9-year-old me to keep an eye on our mounds of luggage.

It was a long wait. From my spot on the floor behind our large charcoal suitcase, I saw my 78-year-old grandmother’s eyelids flutter to a close as she leaned into the waiting area’s couch. She made limp attempts to guard her purse, which was loosely clinging to her right side.

I felt my own eyelids start to droop but was soon distracted by the two characters that had entered the concourse with a swoosh of the automatic doors.

They were dressed head to toe in black (or at least a washed-too-many-times black). If their intent was to blend into the fluorescent fanny-pack-and-visor world of European tourists, they had failed significantly.

I wish for the sake of my story that they weren’t stereotypical crooks, Italian caricatures of Marv and Harry in “Home Alone.” But they were.

One was tall and lanky with olive-oil skin. The other was short, stumpy and squat. Both looked as though they hadn’t showered in days (I would find out later this was a defining feature of many Europeans, not just its crooks).

The two scanned the room until their eyes landed on my sleeping grandmother and me, the youngster peering behind the skyscrapers of luggage. They’d selected their targets. Looking back, I can’t blame them. Not because of our devilish good looks, but because we were the most vulnerable ones in the room.

Almost systematically, the two parted ways. Mr. Stumpy grabbed a pair of wrinkled tickets out of his front pocket and approached my grandmother, talking in cluttered Italian. My grandmother tried responding in her own version of broken Italian, getting increasingly flustered with each exchange.

Mr. Lanky, on the other hand, began to circle around the scene like a hawk eyeing its prey. With each ring around the rosie, he got closer and closer, fiddling with an unlit cigarette between his fore and middle fingers.

And then it happened.

With my grandmother distracted by his partner, Mr. Lanky swooped in, grabbed my grandmother’s purse and briskly walked toward the automatic doors. The short one, as if no one had seen the two enter together, threw up his hands, muttered something to the extent of “would you believe that?!,” put the tickets back in his pocket and walked away from the scene.

And what about little 9-year-old me? Well, I ran after the crook who had my grandmother’s purse.

Either he was a surprisingly slow thief or I was fast for my age, but I was soon able to catch up to him near the automatic doors. I tapped him on the back.

There was no doubt that he was alarmed. His eyes grew wide, his jaw almost hitting the ground. After a few seconds, he managed to mutter, “Oh, is this yours?”

“Yes,” I replied, yanking the purse out of his hands and walking back to my grandmother.

My parents, who had been at the rental desk the entire time, turned around to find me triumphantly wielding my grandmother’s recovered purse and my flustered grandmother struggling to describe the event.

To this day, I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was from a childhood spent pretending I was Harriet the Spy, reading about Nancy Drew’s wit and courage, or hiding behind the bushes in my front yard with a magnifying glass, hoping that I would spot some sort of neighborhood crime.

Not that my reality entirely converged with these fictional universes. In my idols’ detective stories, the heroine’s actions were always celebrated and marveled at by the public. But my heroic actions? Not so much.

Acting as the concerned and anxious parents I know and love, my mom and dad scolded me on how dangerous the situation was. Apparently a 9 year old wasn’t supposed to chase after crooks.

But what I later learned was that my grandmother kept her blood pressure medicine in her purse and could go no longer than 12 hours without it. So, our trip would have been quickly cut short if I hadn’t been crazy enough to run after Mr. Lanky.

But thanks to my considerable sleuthing talents (or just sheer stupidity), we spent the rest of the trip tracing our family roots throughout the farming villages on the outskirts and hills of Rome, seeing the church where my great-grandparents were married and later meeting up with my brothers in Florence. I may or may not have eaten gelato twice a day.

Erin Kirkland is an LSA junior and the co-managing photo editor for The Michigan Daily.