The green wallet with a floral design was on the sidewalk, near the curb. It was clearly a woman's wallet. When I picked it up I could see there was a lot of cash in it.
I glanced around but couldn't see anyone who looked like she was searching for a lost wallet. So I just stood there for about 10 minutes, casually holding the wallet in my hand by my side, leaning against the fender of my car. Anyone retracing her steps looking for it would see me holding it, and I hoped it would be obvious that I was waiting for the owner to show up and claim it.
No one did. What should I do now? Turn it in to the police? Nah, too much delay and red tape for everyone. Keep it? Not an option.
Back in the car, I waited and watched a little while longer, then looked in the wallet for identification. There was several hundred dollars, a credit card, and a driver's license.
The address on the license was about an hour's drive away. Even though I had a lot of things I needed to do that day, and I was already way behind, I headed off to return the wallet.
As I drove I reflected on how I frequently get myself into Quixotic situations like this. One reason is that I get a kick out of surprising people with unexpected honesty. There is also the issue of my sense of the world and what it means to be human. If I strive for honesty and moral integrity, imperfect as I am, I feel confident that others are doing the same. That is the kind of world I prefer.
I finally found the address, though it was harder to find than I had expected. It was clearly not one of the more prosperous parts of town and I was sure this woman was going to be very happy to get her wallet back.
There was no door bell so I knocked on the door once, waited, then a second time while I began planning what to do if no one was there. I figured I could drop it through the mail slot in the door with a note, something cool like, “Found this on the street – have a nice day.”
Then it occurred to me that the woman might no longer live there. As I was thinking about that the door opened and there she was, the woman whose picture was on the license. “I'm sorry to bother you,” I began, thinking that was a nifty rhetorical touch, “but I . . .” found your wallet, I was going to say, but she cut me off with, “My billfold!” as she stepped forward and snatched it out of my hand. She quickly inspected the contents, then pulled the money out. This was when I thought I would at least have the pleasure of telling her I didn't want a reward.
“It's all here,” she said, more to herself than to me, then went back into the house and closed the door, leaving me standing there alone with my mouth open.
Well! That went well, I thought to myself, resisting the temptation to yell something sophomoric like, “You're welcome” through the door. Instead I just got into my car and headed back.
As I drove, going over again and again what what had just happened, I realized it was late afternoon and I hadn't eaten. I stopped at a grocery store to get a Coke and a deli sandwich. As I stood in line to pay for them I was still distracted, trying to get my mind around the wallet owner's reaction to its return. Or rather, lack of reaction.
As the woman in front of me finished paying and turned to leave, a man from back in the line pushed rudely past me and called to her, “Ma’am, Ma’am, don't forget your change!” She had forgotten her change in the coin chute. Looked like there might have been all of about 60 cents there.
“Oh, an honest man,” the woman said, and she proceeded to wax rhapsodic about what a pleasure it was to encounter a true gentleman. He preened, very pleased with himself, and I turned to the lady behind me. I was going to roll my eyes or something when I realized she was his wife. She was contemptuously staring daggers at me. Like I had wanted to take the woman's change for myself.
“My husband's a very honest man,” she sneered, her disdain for me almost palpable. “He's always doing something like that. There aren't many like him.”
“No,” I agreed, “there aren't.”
I left the sandwich and Coke sitting there and walked out of the store. I had lost my appetite. Ω