Turning up a big surprise on turnpike in Jersey

July 15, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

THIS IS A STORY that will either make you smile and reaffirm your faith in humanity, or make you sad that an incident like this is even considered a big deal in this day and age.

It begins the other day after we drove up to see my in-laws on Long Island for my niece's high-school graduation party.

We'd been there a few minutes when my wife said to me: "Go out to the car and get my purse, and we'll give Stephanie her present."

Fine. I went out to the car.

No purse.

When I reported back that there was no purse - and therefore no present for the happy graduate - my wife gave a start, as if someone jabbed her with a cattle prod.

"I left it at the rest stop!" she said. "When we stopped for lunch!"

In this case, she was referring to a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, which we like to visit for their selection of vastly over-priced fast food and lap-scalding coffee.


As soon as the news of the purse had sunk in, I did what I always do in these situations, which is to try to put the best face on it.

"Well, you can kiss that baby goodbye," I said. "Cash, credit cards, keys, they're all gone."

"We'll call the rest stop - maybe someone turned it in," said my brother-in-law Doug, who happens to be a detective with the New York City Police Department.

Fine. But which rest stop was it?

All we remembered was, it was near Exit 7 northbound.

So Doug called the New Jersey State Police, who gave him the name of the rest stop - officially, it's called the Woodrow Wilson Travel Plaza - and the phone number.

He called and asked to be connected to the lost and found.

All the while, of course, I kept up a steady stream of encouragement.

"You're wasting your time, pal," I said. "That purse is history. Someone's barreling down the turnpike right now with a trunk full of big-screen TV's and hot new laptops and cases of Cristal, all charged to our credit cards."

But within minutes, Doug was holding his hand over the receiver and whispering: "They've got the purse!"

Oh, sure, I said, they have the purse.

They have the purse because whoever took it tossed it in the nearest trash can after emptying it and heading over to the nearest Best Buy for their giant "This-One's-on-the-Fat-Columnist-From-Baltimore!" sale.

Doug asked the person on the other end if anything appeared to have been taken.

"No, it's all there," he whispered a few seconds later. "Wallet, credit cards, everything."

Not only that, Doug continued, but the travel plaza would send the purse to us via overnight express - with no charge.

What kind of sick joke are you playing on us? I asked Doug.

But sure enough, at 11 the next morning, the doorbell rang and my wife had her purse back. And the graduate finally got a present from her deadbeat aunt and uncle.

So the other day I called the Woodrow Wilson Plaza and spoke to the manager, a pleasant-sounding woman named Cathy Banks.

I wanted to find out who had turned in the purse. And I wanted to thank that person, and tell that person that he or she had shattered my faith in cynicism.

Banks said she had been on duty the day my wife left her purse underneath a table near the Roy Rogers restaurant. (Oh, yeah, nothing but the finest cuisine when we travel.)

One of the dining-room attendants had found it while cleaning up, and turned it in to Banks.

With nearly 4 million motorists passing through the travel plaza every year, "we're always finding cell phones and personal items and returning them," Banks said.

Sure, I said. But this was more than a cell phone or a pair of shades.

We're not exactly the Trumps, I said, but this was a purse with a wallet, credit cards, driver's license, graduation gifts, the whole bit.

Lots of people might have found it and thought: ka-ching! Party time! Which way to Nordstrom!?

"In this travel plaza ... we operate like a family," Banks said. "In other words, I have a really good staff. They're honest, hard-working people. I wouldn't give them up for the world."

As for the honest, hard-working soul who found the purse, her name is Julia Astudillo.

She is from Ecuador, Banks said, and has been in this country a little over a year.

I asked if I could speak to her, but Banks said Astudillo's English wasn't so great.

That's OK, I said, my Spanish is even worse. Between the two of us, it would sound like we're having a conversation underwater.

Anyway, all I wanted to say was gracias.

You made us feel better - about a lot of things.

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