Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
~ Walt Whitman
It’s complicated, but decades ago I lived in Manhattan with a bunch of Mennonites. I had a room in their Gramercy Park townhouse for a few months, and the rent was cheap-cheap-cheap. The room was no bigger than a closet – actually, it originally had been a closet – but I only slept there, so it didn’t matter.
The rest of the time I wandered around the city, taking the subway here and there, bebopping and cavorting, looking, listening, checking things out. Up to the Cloisters, down to the Battery, Columbia and the Village, St. Pat’s and St. John the Divine, riding, walking, drinking it all in. Sometimes I’d pick a random neighborhood I hadn’t been to, find it on my map – a physical map, a paper map with lots of creases and impossible to refold – then head out on bus and train to find it. Other times (my favorite times) I’d dip into Dorothy Day’s autobiography and locate the sites she mentions like they were hallowed shrines – which they were because she’d been there, because she’d taken note of them. Dorothy was my lodestar in New York, a mentor as I stumbled my way into the practice of the Faith and adult freedoms.
So that’s how I spend most of my time in Manhattan, but I still had to pay my cheap-cheap rent, so I worked at a bookstore. Logos Bookstore of Midtown, on Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th (I think). It subsequently moved further north, but at the time it was definitely in the thick of urban things, at least from my suburban perspective. Grand Central Station was my subway stop; Times Square right down the street.
What happened was this. I was working the counter, ringing up books and magazines, answering questions, and Dan, the manager, took over. “Time for lunch,” he said – gladly. I hit the street, did a brief wander in the general vicinity, and settled on some eatery around the corner from the store and across the street. When it was time to head back to work, I maneuvered through the traffic, crossed back over 43rd and I noticed something in the gutter. It was a wallet – an oblong, brown wallet. I picked it up and looked around: nobody close by, nobody looking for it.
“It’s already been rifled,” I thought to myself. “Probably empty.”
I could feel through the leather that there was something inside. I undid the snap, and there were credit cards and pictures, a woman’s driver’s license and…cash! Maybe thirty, maybe forty bucks. I looked up again, sharply, glancing left and right – nobody around, no one near. Glory! A fortuitous moment – a serendipity; grace! I was in the right place at the right time, and I rescued this woman’s wallet from oblivion!
When I got back to the store, I showed off the wallet to my coworkers. “Can you believe it still has everything in it?” They couldn’t believe it either.
“Should I mail it to her?”
“Call information and get the phone number,” said Dan, “and call her.” Obviously. I gave the operator the address listed on the card and she gave me the number.
I dialed; a woman answered: “Hello?” I asked if I had the correct person. Pause – “Yes.” Pause – “Who is this?”
“I work at a bookstore in Midtown and I found your wallet today – on the street, on 43rdnear Madison.” There was silence, another pause. “It was in the gutter – everything’s still in it.”
Again, another pause as she took in my outlandish claim. “You have my wallet?”
I assured her I did. “I’ll hold it here behind the counter for you.” I gave her the address and my name. “You can pick it up next time you’re in town.” We hung up.
She appeared the next day, accompanied by her brother, I think, or maybe a boyfriend. He hung back, but she inched up to the counter and identified herself, brow furrowed. I’m not sure what she expected – it was just a bookstore, after all, and a religious bookstore at that. Of course, these was the wild days of Mayor Koch’s New York, and I suppose it made sense that she took precautions. Perhaps she imagined a set-up for some kind of elaborate con, a rip-off in the spirit of The Sting, with Scot Joplin melodies tinkling in the background.
Nope. Just ordinary small-town decency. “Here it is,” I said, handing over the wallet. She immediately unsnapped the cover and looked inside: Cards, cash, license, all there. She glanced up at me through the furrows. Without a word she removed a bill – a ten spot maybe? – and held it out.
“That’s not necessary,” I said with a wave. She put away her money – it was an awkward moment. “Thanks,” she uttered as she turned to go. Her man-friend lingered, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, but eventually he exited as well.
That’s it. So simple, so straightforward, it wouldn’t even rate a second thought in the Midwest – in Dubuque, for instance, or Wichita.
But in Manhattan? I know I would’ve been shocked if a stranger had contacted me about a missing wallet, and even more shocked when he restored it to me intact. The whole episode would’ve entered my lexicon of family lore, a story told over and over whenever New York came up in conversation.
Which is why I call my own part in a surprise wallet recovery my finest hour: not because my actions were particularly meritorious, not because I did the bare minimum that most folks would do, especially those that aspire to be Christians. Frankly, if I’d been a real Christian, I would’ve hopped in a cab and delivered the wallet in person, on the spot.
No, I call it my finest hour because the unusual circumstances allowed me to become, just that one time, a bit player, an active player, in someone else’s New York sojourn. That lucky, that providential wallet find made me a character in a stranger’s memorable Manhattan moment that’ll stand out into her dotage, a story that her kids and grandkids will hear over and over, a command performance at Thanksgivings and other family gatherings. “Tell the one about losing your wallet in New York, grandma!”
And she’ll tell it with pleasure. “It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say. “I knew it was gone, and I was making plans to get a new license when I got this odd phone call….” And that’s me, in her New York story! What a gift, what a gift to add to her story, the city’s story, after having received so much.
She might’ve even told our story today, who knows? Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?
image: Alessandro Colle / Shutterstock.com