01 April 2005

Free enterprise revisited.

NOTE: The date notwithstanding, the following is a true story, not an April Fool's joke.

On my way to the Q train this afternoon, I stop at the corner bodega to pick up a bottle of water and a copy of the Times. Total cost: $2.00. I pay with two dollar bills. Heading down the steps into the subway station, I put my right hand in my jacket pocket and am alarmed to realize my wallet is missing from its customary abode. Quick pro forma check of other pockets turns up nothing, so I dash back to the store, assuming I must have left it on the counter like a total idiot. But the bodega dude assures me I did not leave my wallet on the counter like a total idiot. "Possibly you left it at home*," he suggests, but I know that can't be so since I never carry money anywhere but my wallet.** And I'm pretty sure this guy didn't take it, since he and I share the friendly familiarity that neighborhood residents establish with local merchants. But a grand total of maybe 30 seconds had elapsed between purchase and revelation, and I'd traveled approximately a dozen yards. So if I didn't leave it on the counter, I somehow lost it in that short distance.

Now, the only other person in the vicinity at this time is a very cheerful fellow alternating between solicitations for spare change and flattery of random passersby (assuming there's a distinction to be made between the two). He's close enough to overhear my conversation with the bodega dude about my missing wallet, and if I somehow dropped my wallet between the store and the subway entrance he'd almost certainly have seen it. But he's ignoring me pretty strenuously. Which I guess I can't fault him for that, since according to him every single woman walking down Flatbush must be a model, right? That fine you have got to be a model. Lemme get one little smile from Miss America. Etc.

The bodega dude, mildly sympathetic but incapable of much more than shrugs and palms-up "search me" gestures, finally offers to check the store's security videocassette for me. While waiting for him to return, I decide it can't hurt to ask the homeless*** guy whether he saw anything.

ME: Hey, I lost my wallet around here about two, three minutes ago. You didn't happen to see it, did you?
PROBABLY HOMELESS GUY: No, man, sorry. Damn. That's fucked up.

But he's a terrible liar. Possibly the worst liar I've ever encountered. It's instantly obvious that he has my wallet. I don't know exactly what nonverbal indications human beings pick up on when others are dissembling; whatever the reliable tells are, though, he's exhibiting all of them at once, jacked up to 11. I take him aside as best I can given that we're both standing on the street with a steady flow of foot traffic around us.

ME (super-conspiratorially): Look, anybody who did find my wallet, the only thing that's any use to them is the money, right? And a Metrocard that's gonna expire in like two days. I don't care about the money. What I need to get back is a bunch of other crap in there. Like phone numbers and shit. I'd be really happy to get the wallet back without the money. So I'm not accusing you or anything, but seriously, if you do have my wallet, you can keep the money if you just give me the wallet back, I'm not calling the cops, I don't give a shit. I would really appreciate it. And if you honestly don't have it and don't know anything about it then I apologize. But if you do, then please, cut me a break.

He looks at me frankly for about ten seconds after I finish this little speech, then says, "All right, man, since you asked nice. Because you asked with respect, all right?"

And takes my wallet out of his pocket, opens it up, takes out all the cash (only maybe $45), and hands me the wallet. The cash goes back into his pocket.

For some reason I can't think of anything to do except stand there, dumbfounded. I don't even necessarily know why I'm dumbfounded. I guess I just didn't imagine anyone could be quite that brazen about it.

After about ten seconds of my gaping, he says: "What? That was the agreement, right?"

I still can't think of anything to say, so I just stare some more. Another ten seconds pass. Then he gives a little snort. "All right, man, it makes you feel better." He reaches into his pocket, takes out the money, hands it to me. I riffle it between my fingers, then hand it all back to him. He pockets it again. "Thanks a lot," I say, and get a little mock salute in return.

The weird thing is, I actually do feel better.

* Quiz for the Henry Higginses among you: What part of the world is this man from?

** Poker bankroll excepted. Between spasms of panic, I congratulated myself for this elementary precaution. But I don't use the bankroll as petty cash, so I had to have my wallet at the store.

*** (Presumption)

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