August 19, 2014

The Finder of Lost Things

NJ Transit rail car interior
All aboard for a trip back in time with New Jersey Transit, to the era of train travel in which a conductor rapidly punched an inscrutable pattern of holes in a little slip of paper and tucked it under a clip on the seatback in front of you. Not as creatively as the conductor on the Polar Express, but nearly as quaint.

On the last afternoon of a brief family visit, I stopped at the local supermarket. Being more sports-car-than-minivan-experienced, I am uneasy driving the family Odyssey around. I found a distant, comfortably uncrowded section of the lot and parked without incident. On the way out of the store, something caught my eye: a small leather card sleeve on the pavement.

Last spring, I was biking to work when I spotted an iPhone face down on the street. I passed it before circling back. If that were my iPhone, I would want someone like me to find it, I reasoned. I picked it up; if I couldn't figure out who the owner was, I expected that an Apple Store could sort it out. At the office, I pulled out the phone. “Swipe to unlock.” [Really, people?] I passed the phone to a colleague with more iPhone savvy; the phone book was nearly empty, but within moments he found the owner's corporate email account. [She didn't even know that she'd dropped the phone.] Her husband presented me with a basket of kiwi fruit when he retrieved the phone later that evening.

I picked up the card sleeve. It was stuffed with credit cards and a transit pass, with an out-of-state driver's license on top. I thought about returning to the store and handing it in to customer service; but the owner might be long gone, having no idea where he managed to drop it.

Years ago, I found a credit card on the sidewalk in my town. It was issued by a Canadian bank, and all I could imagine was a much-inconvenienced (and panicked) tourist. I called the toll-free number printed on the back of the card and tried (in vain) to convince the bank to contact their customer so I could happily return the card. They would do nothing but cancel it. Now when I find a card, I don't bother calling; I just shred it.

This leather sleeve was different—with a driver's license, I had an address. Maybe I could get in touch with the nice-looking guy who lost it and return it. What an enormous pain it would be to replace his license and all those credit cards. If this were my wallet, I would want someone like me to find it.

Back at my laptop, I set to work. In the worst case, I would carry it back to the Bay Area in the morning and mail it. [At this point, anyone else would turn to Facebook. But I am not a Facebook-y type, so I turned to Google.] The name looked uncommon, but wasn't. Within a few minutes, I discovered that this handsome fella was not just anyone; he was a lacrosse player, with his own Wikipedia entry. There was his date of birth for all to see; it matched the one on his driver's license. I foraged for email addresses on websites where someone would plausibly know him. The first message paid off within 30 minutes; he was much relieved and came by to retrieve the goods.

He shared the story: He and his wife had just bought a house in a neighboring town. With his toddler in tow, he had wheeled a cart full of groceries to the cash register ... and couldn't pay. We shared a laugh.

“There are good, honest people in the world!” he thanked me. Could he give me something? I waved him off.

“Pay it forward.”

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