I was a bank investigator for Wachovia branches in Washington, DC. It was my job to look into fraudulent charges on accounts, track people down when they hadn’t made necessary payments, and occasionally I would become involved after a customer’s death.
It was on one of these last occasions that the file of Ms. Roberta Lystron was put in my care. The DC Metro Police had found her body, stabbed multiple times, in an alley in Southwest on June 3.
I flipped through her file; a sparse manilla folder with some account information and a poor-quality purple photocopy of her death certificate. There were copies of the original account form, her driver’s license, and a log of transactions in the last year.
She had only one account, a checking account, and the year’s transaction log was surprisingly uniform. No withdrawals, but hundreds of deposits made nearly every day at an ATM at Connecticut and L Northwest. Each was each between $20 and $40.
Most people carry a balance somewhere between $200 and $2,000 in a checking account and keep everything else in a savings account or elsewhere. Roberta’s account contained about $410,700.
The original account form had the unfamiliar logo of some obscure bank that eventually merged with First Union and then later with Wachovia. The form was dated November 15, 1954; the opening balance was $67.45. Her birth date was listed as June 4, 1936.
She had been killed only a day short of her 67th birthday.
The police report had a note in place of the address which said, simply, “homeless.”
I typed her customer number into our tracking system and her records came up on the screen. A quick glance ten years back though her transaction log looked the same as the one-year printout. Daily deposits; no withdrawals.
The address on her account was “care of Katherine’s Women’s Center” on 11th Street Northwest. The location was only ten minutes away from my anonymous office in Farragut Square; I resolved to walk over on my lunch break.
Katherine’s Women’s Center was a day-shelter made out of two converted houses that looked much like any other two houses in that part of Washington. They were old, seemed to be a bit dilapidated, but were kept in reasonable shape.
“Lystron, Roberta. Here it is,” the director said as she yanked a file from a large, beige file cabinet. She opened it and ruffled through the pages. “Ms. Lystron lived here for two years, ninety-seven and ninety-eight.”
“She leave a forwarding address, anything like that?”
“No, nothing like that. Looks like her bank statements still come here, though.” She handed me a pile of unopened envelopes with First Union and then Wachovia logos on them. “Nothing else here, really. No family listed, no emergency contact. Nothing.”
“How about a picture of her?”
“Now that’s something I can get a hold of. Just a second.”
She pulled open another drawer on the file cabinet, ran her fingers over the folders, then pulled one out.
“We take pictures of everybody when the first come here, just in case somebody goes missing or anything. Here it is.” She handed the Polaroid to me.
I looked at the squareish, glossy print, and a feeling of familiarity came over me. I knew this woman from somewhere. I had seen her, or spoken to her. The creases in her skin, the frail smile, everything stirred some sort of faint memory that came without context.
“Can I get a copy of this?” I asked, handing the photo back.
“Sure, hang on.”
I walked back toward my office, clutching the photocopied picture, running a million faces through my mind trying to figure out where I had seen this one before. It was useless. I see a million people every day—side effect of living in the city—and the chances I would ever remember where I saw a specific one were incredibly slim.
As I approached the unassuming building where I toiled all day, my stomach grumbled a reminder that maybe I should eat on my lunch break. I stepped into a cramped underground food court connected to the Farragut North Metro station on the corner of Connecticut and L.
I grabbed some McDonald’s to go, and started up the stairs to street level. By instinct I reached into my pocket to grab some coins for the beggar woman who stood at the top of the steps.
Then it hit me.
The woman at the top of the steps was dead. Her photo was in my slacks pocket.
Like a flood, the memories came back. She stood there in tattered clothes every day, politely asking for money with an outstretched paper cup. She had always been kind, unlike the man who yelled at passersby on 18th, so I always gave her at least a couple of quarters.
She was gracious, always thanking me for my modest donation. “God bless, sir,” she would say. “Have a nice day.”
“You too,” I would reply.
At street level I glanced around, and there—across Connecticut—was the Wachovia branch where she made her deposits. She must have put the fruits of her daily begging into the bank account each evening, collecting over the years and decades into an incongruously large sum.
She had probably been begging for fifty years, depositing the money while subsisting on soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
I wished I had known. Maybe if I had known that her money was just collecting in the bank, I could have helped her. I could have explained to her, advised her. She could have lived out her days in a retirement home or an apartment. Maybe she wouldn’t have been walking down that Southwest alley on June 3. Maybe she would still be alive.
I put it out of my head.
Back at my office, I set the McDonald’s bag in an empty space between mountains of papers and files. The Roberta Lystron file sat open where I left it, in the middle of my desk.
I typed a few notes, filled out a couple of forms, and added printouts of them—with the copy of her photo—to the folder. I took a deep breath, and leafed again through the file.
The copy of her driver’s license caught my eye. She had been a lovely young woman in the 1950s, if the photo was any way to judge. How did she get from there to here? What could possess somebody so beautiful and radiant as the woman in this grainy photocopied sheet to become the homeless beggar I handed quarters to every day?
I wished I could ask her.
Roberta Lystron’s estate, $410,700 in a Wachovia bank account, fell into the hands of the Washington, DC, court system. It was off my desk. I picked up the next manilla file in my inbox, and went on with my day.