I had been in San Francisco for only about an hour when it happened.
I parked my SUV hire car in the only available spot I could find in the Mission district and went to get dinner on Valencia Street. I met up with my couch-surfing host and we ate spicy Burmese noodles from a small family-run restaurant. It was a warm evening and my mood was upbeat.
But when I got back to the car after dinner I discovered a window in the back of the car had been smashed and all my luggage taken. At first I was aghast – I just couldn't believe this could happen to me. My two bags containing all my possessions – clothes, passport, laptop, camera – everything gone in a flash.
I consider myself to be a pretty experienced traveller but I had not anticipated this. In retrospect, it was poor judgment on my part to leave my bags in a parked vehicle in San Francisco, but to be honest it just didn't even cross my mind. In Melbourne where I live, this is certainly not a common occurrence. In fact I have never heard of it happening to anyone I know back home.
But there I was – standing there staring at my smashed vehicle in a warm San Francisco night and wondering what to do next. When things like this happen, an initial and somewhat irrational sense of shock and panic takes hold. All I could think to do was to move the hire car to a secure location in an underground carpark because I didn't want to leave it there with a broken window like an open invitation.
At that moment all my worst fears and stereotypes about America seemed to have been brutally vindicated.
As we drove down Valencia Street to find a secure carpark, chunks of the shattered glass still dangling in the window frame collapsed back in to the car, making a god-awful sound as we slowly cruised the four blocks to the carpark. I felt like I was in a gangster movie.
At that moment all my worst fears and stereotypes about America seemed to have been vindicated. What we see on TV back home about the violence, the crime, the volatility of the US, seemed to be shockingly confirmed. I thought I would surely have to go home and abandon my vacation altogether to deal with this calamity.
But miraculously the morning brought some relief. I checked into a nice hotel in the Castro and filled out a police report with two friendly young officers who told me this kind of event happens every night in San Francisco. One of the officers told me she had once had her own car broken into just for a tracksuit jacket she'd left on the back seat.
I had a lot to organise contacting my insurance company, making a police report and getting a new passport. As I made my way by subway to the Australian consulate in the Financial district to organise an emergency passport, my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a notification on LinkedIn from a stranger named Poppy with the subject line: "Lost a bag in San Francisco?"
I felt a palpable sense of relief, like a rush of positivity that could renew my faith in humanity. Poppy had identified me from a luggage tag that was still attached to my backpack. From that she had trawled through social media like a detective – sending me messages on Twitter and Facebook as well as LinkedIn. And she was writing to let me know my backpack was waiting for me to pick up at the police station.
After organising an emergency passport (which takes only two days at the Australian consulate in San Francisco), I made my way back across town to the Mission police headquarters. After I produced ID, a friendly police woman fished out my backpack from a room full of stolen property.
"This the one?" she asked, scooping it from near the top of the pile.
"Yep, sure is," I replied.
"We have car robberies every night and very few people get their bags back. I guess today is your lucky day," she said handing me the backpack.
Not quite, because my smaller bag with my laptop, passport and camera was still missing from the vehicle, never to be seen again. But my backpack had everything in it – all my clothes and personal items. And the only reason I got it all back was because of the remarkable kindness of a stranger. In a sense the police woman was right – I had experienced the best and worst of San Francisco in 24 hours.
I never met Poppy in person but when I called to thank her she said she often finds dumped bags on the streets where she lives and does her best to get them back to their owner. As a fellow traveller, Poppy said she knows how much it can mean to people to get stolen luggage back when overseas.
That act of benevolence went some way towards restoring my faith in America, and gave me the impetus to continue my travels. Tennessee Williams' famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire seemed to ring as true now as ever: "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
So thank you Poppy – you've saved my vacation.
James Norman is an Australian journalist currently travelling across America.
See also: Into the urban jungle of San Francisco