On the day he found the purse, Aeric "Bubby" McCoy believed he was close to dying. There had been too many disagreements with people who sold heroin on the street in Penn North, and with all the guns in West Baltimore, and all the fatal shootings, he sensed that the ultimate in bad was about to happen to him.
"I'd pushed too many buttons," he says. "I felt I was going to die out there. I was looking for it. I was waiting."
McCoy is 36 years old, a heroin addict who works for drug dealers from time to time. He touts their brands to other addicts; the dealers pay him in both cash and product. As McCoy tells it, he has been hired, fired and rehired by a couple of dealers, and all that back-and-forth caused friction.
In mid-June, on the day he found the purse in a weed-choked lot behind an abandoned rowhouse where he had gone to shoot up, McCoy felt that sense of foreboding.
"I didn't care about my life," he says. "I was in so much pain mentally, I felt like my life had no value. And then, when I found that purse, it was like God put it there. It was crazy, like, normally, I would have just sold it. But this time, for once, I told myself, 'Aeric, do the right thing, you gotta find the owner and give it back.' "
McCoy was struck by the good condition of the purse. Inside, he found a name and an address on an envelope, and from it assumed that the owner was one Kaitlyn Smith, who lived near Patterson Park, about four miles to the east.
"I went to Upton market and asked a guy to Google the address for me," McCoy says. "I was devastated when I learned how far away it was. I said, 'There's no way I can walk that far.'"
But something pushed him to return the purse. He bought a subway pass from a stranger at the Upton station and took the Metro across town to the Johns Hopkins stop. From there, he still had a long walk.
"A woman in a van saw me carrying the purse and said she wanted to buy it," McCoy says. "'Name your price,' she said. "I said, 'I cannot sell you the purse.' Another woman got out of the van and asked again. I kept walking. I was exhausted and worn out, and I sat on some steps and started crying. I'd just missed an opportunity to sell the purse and get some money, you know? So I cried for a while. Then I put on some sunglasses and kept walking."
McCoy came upon a church, where volunteers were handing out food to homeless people. One of the volunteers spotted the bag in his hand and suspected it had been stolen. "Man," she told McCoy, "that is a beautiful purse. If I wasn't a Christian, I would buy it from you." He took some food and walked away.
McCoy says he became addicted to drugs several years ago, but went into treatment, had about eight years clean and managed to build a decent life: A good job, a home, nice wheels. But injuries from a car accident in 2012 led to an addiction to painkillers and, from there, full relapse into heroin. He lost all his savings and slipped into homelessness. On the day McCoy carried the purse to Smith's street near Patterson Park, he was ragged, dirty, tired and confused.
And then he spotted a young woman approaching on the sidewalk. And this young woman stared at the purse. "I'm Kaitlyn Smith," she said. "I'm the owner of that purse."
As Smith tells it, she lost the bag through negligence, leaving it on June 12 in a place where it was vulnerable to theft. Three weeks later, a Baltimore police detective found her driver's license and credit card during a search of an apartment in Upton — but not the purse.
Smith never expected to see the purse again. She was stunned that McCoy carried it all the way from Upton.
And so grateful that she soon befriended him, learned about his addiction and bought him a one-way ticket to a residential treatment center in Florida — a place where McCoy had sought help before. She set up a GoFundMe page to help defray the costs of his rehabilitation.
Smith, 29, is a medical device sales representative. She says she and McCoy have developed "one of those unexpected friendships you see on YouTube between a cat and a duck." He calls her each day from Florida. Having completed his residential treatment, McCoy is now set to move to a halfway house for 90 days. After that, he's not sure where he'll go.
But he is sure of one thing, about Kaitlyn Smith: "That woman saved my life. She saved my life."