Friday, December 8, 2000
A holiday story from Back Bay
I started my holiday shopping early this year. On the last mild weekend in November, I set out right after breakfast for a grand sweep of my Back Bay neighborhood buying scented soaps, costume jewelry, cassettes and T-shirts. I ran into a friend who was eating a bagel on Newbury Street and we compared purchases.
I ended up at the Boston Public Library, found a novel I had been looking for and reflected on how nice it was to do one transaction that did not involve money. But when I reached into my bag for my library card, I discovered that my wallet was gone.
Knowing from past experience how quickly strangers can rack up credit card bills, I canceled everything immediately. I called all the stores I'd been to that morning, which turned out to take some time because I had to stop and try to define "Lost and Found" to the non-English-speaking guard at the library. With little surprise, I was unable to track down my wallet, realizing by then that it must have been adroitly lifted out of my bag.
It wasn't just the value of the cash that upset me; it was the inconvenience of replacing everything else. Borrower's cards from four libraries. Health insurance card. Bank card. Driver's license. And the wallet itself was brand new, a birthday present from my grandmother only a week earlier.
Maybe, I thought to myself, someone will take what they want-with the credit cards canceled, only the cash had any value-and throw the rest into a mailbox. I had always heard that the Post Office promised return delivery if someone did that. It would be so simple; less effort than sneaking it out of my bag in the first place. And what use would my library cards and driver's license be to someone else, anyway? Plenty of college kids in Boston covet legal ID's, but the photo on my license was so horrendous that any college girl in her right mind would rather stay home for the next four years than pretend to be the person in that picture.
While I was listing my losses, the buzzer in my apartment rang. I dashed down the stairs and spied a mailman standing by the door. "I don't believe it," I murmured. "Someone actually did drop It into a mailbox." Pale with relief, I opened the door.
"Registered mail," said the mailman. "Don't look so startled. It's only a credit card."
By sheer coincidence, a credit card I'd applied for weeks earlier was arriving at that moment. Had it been delivered one day earlier, it too would have been lost. Stunned, I signed for it. So now I had not a cent or a blank check in the world, but a credit card. I could go clothes shopping at Filene's or buy airline tickets to Hong Kong, but I still couldn't buy groceries for dinner. I called two friends and told them we had to go out to dinner - "any place that accepts Visa."
At seven the next morning, an unseasonably warm Sunday, I was half-asleep and listening to the news when the buzzer rang again, making the total of times it had rung in the past twenty-four hours equal to the number of times it had rung the whole time I'd lived there., Dressed in only a long flannel nightgown, I bounded down the stairs again. A slender man with a patchy beard and a denim jacket stood on the steps.
"I think this Is your wallet," he announced, holding out my grandmother's birthday present. 'And I think these are your library cards, and driver's license and checkbook."
There it all was, all of mv dearly missed earthly possessions, all but the small number of bills that had been in it. "I found it at Fanueil Hall," he explained. "Probably taken by some kids wanting to use your ID to drink. I found it in a trash can. I was looking for cans to return."
"Do you live nearby?" I asked, still puzzled. It was still so early in the morning.
"Pine Street Inn," he answered offhandedly, naming a homeless shelter just outside of my neighborhood. "I saw your address on your license and figured you must be anxious, so I just dropped by."
"I can't give you anything," I said feeling awkward. "I have no cash left."
"I know," he answered, grinning sardonically. "I checked."
"Do you need ... some breakfast?" I was torn between not wanting to insult him but not wanting to brush off the favor he'd done me either.
"Wait here." I ran back up to the fifth floor. My mother had brought me pumpkin muffins and hand-picked apples earlier in the week. I grabbed both bags.
An impromptu breakfast
So we sat on the front step of my building that morning, the homeless man and I, eating muffins and apples, he in his torn denim jacket, I still in my Lanz nightgown. It was a sunny, quiet morning and little traffic drove by. He told about his job and his fear that his co-workers would find out where he lived. He'd lost his apartment on September 1st and couldn't pull together the sum needed a new lease. I thanked him again for returning my things. He drifted off, the rest of the muffins in his pocket. I suspected that we wouldn't run into each other again, but I wondered what I'd say if we did.
It turned out that our paths did cross less than a month later, but I didn't have to say anything because he didn't see me. I was working my weekly volunteer shift at a local facility for AIDS patients, and he came in for an appointment with one of the counselors.
It's not a surprise to anyone to hear that there are plenty who give and plenty who take in this world. But it is certainly a surprise, sometimes, to find out who does which.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito