One December, when my fiancée and I were visiting her friend in New Haven, I found a wallet in the stairwell of a parking garage. It was thick with credit and debit cards. There was approximately $55 in cash inside. The driver’s license gave an address in Oregon. A Yale University ID gave the woman’s name, but no address. It seemed unsafe to simply mail it to the address, so when we returned to my father’s home in Massachusetts, I found her on the Yale University directory. She responded to my email. I asked her if I could use some of the cash to cover the cost of mailing it to her, and she said sure, and I sent everything to her.
Why? “Not everyone would have done that,” my fiancée reminded me. I did consider stealing the money and leaving the wallet where I found it. I am not independently wealthy. At the time, I was unemployed and in between semesters at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had just placed a deposit on an apartment downtown and paid someone $175 for several pieces of furniture, which I thought would be waiting for me when I returned. I wasn’t sure how much debt I was about to take on. In fact, every factor in my life pressured me to pocket the money and leave the wallet where it was.
But I didn’t. I don’t say this to gain some kind of moral authority, but to illustrate how I thought: I believed someone would do the same kind of favor for me.
About that furniture: I purchased it from a friend of an acquaintance, who told me he’d rented the apartment for one month longer than he needed it. This meant my furniture would be sitting there in January, by the time the lease to my apartment started. He told me I could retrieve the key from our mutual friend and collect my furniture. In total: A futon, a coffee table, a bookshelf, two chairs and a rug.
In January, I moved in my books and cookware, then walked two blocks to the guy’s apartment. I asked for the key. Nobody had the key. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I called the landlord. The landlord lived out of state, dealt with tenants through his groundskeeper. The groundskeeper told me the guy who sold me his furniture hadn’t paid his rent in three months—and anything the guy left behind would be sold.
I was angry. More than angry, I was embarrassed. Why had I trusted him and written him a check? How is it possible that I could help a total stranger when in the same world a friend-of-a-friend could look me the eye and cheat me? I felt naïve. Here was the true nature of the world, harming me when I couldn’t afford to be harmed.
In the Red
In my anger, I decided the world owed me $175. I wanted to find a wallet with lots of money in it and take the money and leave it on the ground. No longer would I be anyone’s fool. In fact, I began mocking the person I was, the one who helped the student from Yale. What a tool, I thought. What ignorance. What naïveté!
Within weeks, I landed two jobs to keep me afloat: one, at a call center, paid $10/hour. And the other was a teaching job at a community college. It was there that I first began to recover my loss.
Part of the teaching job required a lab exercise. Students sat at computers and wrote for fifty minutes. When they were finished, they would put their work onto a floppy disk or a flash drive. Once, after my class left, I found a flash drive in one of the computers. The files on the drive bore a student’s name I didn’t recognize. My old, naïve self would have delivered this to the secretary in the English department, who would have found the student to whom it belonged. But why should I do that? If I left my flash drive in the computer lab, nobody would return it to me. They’d erase my files and stick it on their keychain. So that’s what I did: I cleaned out this student’s files and kept the flash drive. It was valued at approximately $9.95 on the Office Max website.
I had $165.05 to go.
Why Stop There?
I began stealing sodas from the office refrigerator. Printer paper. I counted down, sixty cents here, a dollar there. It felt good. I was taking back from the world what it had taken from me. I began to look at things lying around and think of what they were worth and how easily I could steal them. A pen? A roll of tape? A book? A CD? In my mind, I saw price tags and a balance sheet. I promised myself I would stop when the $175 that guy stole from me had been recovered from the rest of the world.
But then I thought: Why stop there? The world had begun stealing from me years ago. When I was sixteen, I worked in a grocery store. Once while putting tiny cans of cat food on a shelf, a tall, fat man with large Nikes approached me and asked for five dollars. “I need to buy a phone card,” he said. “My grandmother is dying in Brazil.”
I gave him five dollars.
“God bless you.” He thanked me and walked away.
The other boys working with me laughed at me. They said: You’re such a sucker. But I was happy to have helped. I wondered what life would be like, to be that desperate.
Bitter Living Room
During that winter in Wilmington, as I bitterly built a living room out of furniture from the Christian Rescue League, I yearned for those five dollars. And mocked myself: A fool and his money are soon parted. Yet through all my desperation was this murky feeling of my degeneration and desperation. The moral implications of what I was doing gnawed at me. What if everybody stole because they thought everybody else stole? Somewhere along the line, I had become bitter. I had stopped being what I thought I was: a good person.
But then I thought: How good could I have really been, if I was just “doing the right thing” because I thought everyone else was? That winter I realized I had been conforming to a naïve belief in the goodness of human nature. As soon as I saw mankind’s remarkable capacity for greed, desperation and dishonesty, I became greedy, desperate and dishonest. And I didn’t like it.
Later that spring, as a tired group of my students left my classroom, I found a cell phone underneath his desk. The old temptations arose: pocket it, pawn it, augment your salary—don’t be a sucker. But the thought of behaving like those who hurt me drove me upstairs to the department secretary’s desk, where I left the phone for the student to pick up later.
Somewhere in between winter and spring, I realized what I really want, more than my money back, is to live in a world where we’re inclined to help one other. Returning to each other what we’ve lost seems like a small way to make that possible.