I believe in returning money.
It’s a twist of vertebrae rather than a twist of fate. I stare at my shoelaces and the ants hurrying home with crumbs. Like the ants, I find what others drop.
I find money: at crosswalks or in the supermarket.
That bill, weirdly folded, was next to the lettuce, a fallen leaf of iceberg.
Unfolded, the chubby face of Franklin appears.
Others would suspect a secret camera recording them for television. But it’s just my life, Wednesday at 10 A.M. Not even the greengrocer is watching me fondle my c-note.
An ugly truth: I’m greedy. I find money, then start thinking it’s mine. I want the glee of winning the lottery.
But I don’t play the lottery or the stock market. Though far from the high desert ranch of my youth, I still have the righteous fire of the cowboy: Unearned money is a disgrace.
How can I earn Ben?
Ah, the twisted logic of greed. If you try to return the money and it goes unclaimed, then you’ve earned it.
At the service desk I enlist an accomplice. “I found some money.”
“How much?” asks the woman behind the counter, tilting her head in anticipation. She sells cigarettes and cashes paychecks.
Another ugly truth: I don’t trust my fellows. If we’re both average, then she’s just as greedy as me, already scheming to claim the cash.
So I leave my card, then rush from aisle to aisle, gathering groceries at top speed. Now “earning” my money, the bill is a telltale heart.
“If Chris Dennis is still in the store, please come to the service desk.”
There a grizzled man—a drywaller or janitor, someone for whom a hundred means potatoes—is shifting from foot to foot. Not hopeful, his gray eyes, not expectant.
“I dropped a hundred. It was folded like a—”
The bill—I’ve been caressing it, knowing we’d soon part—is pressed into his hand. I turn away before—
“Hey!” Grabbing the back of my jacket, he prohibits escape. A nearby cashier starts clapping. “Thanks.”
The pattern: I find other people’s money. I covet it, return it. Then they want to thank me with coffee or cash. This time? Donuts.
I squirm at the gift, but it’s no surprise. People want to show appreciation for generosity, or understand a saint.
The reality? I am neither saintly nor generous. I feel as greedy as Jeffery Skilling or any Wall Street baron.
This scene with found money has recurred for decades. The find, the glee, the greed, the guilt, the return, more guilt…
If belief weren’t involved, I’d learn. I’d learn to pocket the cash and disappear. But I don’t. After a momentary windfall I hand it over.
Until I started writing, I couldn’t put words to it, but now I know why I believe in returning money. I want us to believe the world still has slivers of honor left in it, that greed is still a force we have the power to master.
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