Monday, April 28, 2003

One Good Turn

As I've grown older, I've become more cynical and less charitable.

I don't think this is particular to me, even though, thus far, 2003 has been an even bigger black hole of suck than 2002 was, and God and I aren't on the best of speaking terms (if, in fact, he/she/it exists at all--I have my doubts). Maybe it's because the world as a whole has taken a downturn--especially the U.S. economy, which hasn't been helped in the least by the latest war, which has yet to turn up any of the seemingly mythical "Weapons of Mass Destruction"--and most of us have become less charitable because we have less to give.

Maybe it's because the need seems overwhelming. It's damn near impossible to come downtown without encountering someone on nearly every corner, in front of every convenience store, drug store, coffee house and bar, each with their own spin on why they're asking for whatever change the passerby can give. I used to give more often than not, but not anymore. Maybe because I've been burned a few times.

Like the time a guy came up to me in the South Loop and said he'd locked his keys in his car and needed change to catch a busride home. Sounded plausible. I gave what little I could--I was a college student at the time and didn't have much to give--and went on my way, thinking I'd helped somebody in need. Until a couple of days later, when I saw the same guy laying the same line on someone else. I suppose he could have locked his keys in his car again--they don't give IQ tests at the DMV--but, more likely, he'd fed me a line and I'd gobbled it up.

Or the time outside Wrigley Field as I was leaving a Cubs game, when a guy selling a newspaper for the homeless (not Streetwise, but some short-lived competitor) approached me and asked if I'd buy a copy. The smallest bill I had in my wallet was a five, and I asked if he could break it. He said he could. Fair enough. Then, as soon as the Lincoln landed in his hand, he turned with almost military precision and disappeared into the crowd. "Never again," I vowed. (I vow this often, in many aspects of my existence, and have yet to hold to it once, to the best of my recollection.)

Just last year, two well-dressed women in Lincoln Square asked for a buck or two. They were from out of town, they needed money for gas and the younger woman's cash station card had been swallowed whole at a Dominick's. Shit happens. They were friendly and well-spoken. I checked my wallet. Nothing smaller than a twenty. All three of us walked up to Lawrence, where there had been a currency exchange. Not anymore, though--it had closed and merged with another exchange three blocks away. Screw it. I gave them the twenty. They thanked me profusely, which was nice, and the older lady wrote me a personal check, insisting that she add an extra five dollars because I'd been so charitable. I took the check, tucked it into my wallet and let them go their merry way.

My first instinct was to just rip up the check and let it go. After all, if I'd given anything to just about anyone on the street, I wouldn't get anything in return but a "thanks, you're so kind" kind of thing. But no. I had a check in hand. Might as well cash it at my bank, right?

And, of course, the check bounced higher than the Sears Tower. To add injury to insult, my bank assessed a penalty nearly equal to the check amount, thus doubling the amount I was out.

I'm sure regular readers could share similar stories of altruism gone wrong, no doubt. This long-brewed cynicism, combined with other recent events, must make me look like nothing so much as a character from a Charles Schulz cartoon, dark cloud perpetually hovering over furrowed brow.

And this past Friday, the dark cloud went absolutely black.

It was a quiet Friday at work. Not much going on. Little to do but file and watch the clock move ever so slowly toward five. I had no plans for the weekend--not even the usual pretense of apartment cleaning. And all I had to do for the day, really, was make three credit card payments at lunchtime. So out I went, crossing a bridge over the pea-colored Chicago River toward a currency exchange and, maybe, a Veggie with Cheese sandwich from Mr. Submarine.

On the other side of the bridge, though, I made a horrifying discovery: The bills weren't in my jacket pocket. Nor were they in any of the pockets on the jacket. Nor were they in the pockets of my jeans. I retraced my steps a couple of times and found nothing. I went back up to where I work, hoping they'd fallen out in my cubicle, which bobs in a sea of cubicles. Nope. The three bills were just...gone. Must have fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the way.

Remarkably enough, I didn't panic, lose my cool or start breaking shit. I just planned to send payments to the credit card companies sans the accompanying bills. My only hope was that they'd fallen somewhere where no one of a nafarious mind could get a hold of them--down an elevator shaft, into a sewer, down the pea-green river, whatever. If someone did find them, though, and was of less than stellar character, my credit rating could be wrecked beyond repair. True, one of the cards in question is nearly maxed out--that being the one that all the dental bills landed on--but the other two cards had more than enough room to grow on. I had to just hope.

And, this time, hope won out, in a most curious way.

Saturday morning, I headed out the door of La Casa del Terror with the intent of mailing off payments to the various credit card companies, still trying to believe that the bills were out of the reach of anyone with a mind toward larceny. And, in truth, they were. They were perfectly safe, in fact.

On the way out, I stopped at my mailbox to check for more incoming bills or junk or rejection slips from publications. None of the above. All there was in the mailbox was one long, slender envelope with a Zora Neal Hurston postage stamp on it and the words "LOST BILLS" written in big block letters in the upper left-hand corner. Inside were, of course, the missing bills, along with a note written on a large yellow Post-It: "I found these on the street!", followed with an emoticon-style smily face.

No name. No address. No attempt to claim credit for a good deed done. Just the items lost, returned to their owner. Nothing else.

So maybe that black cloud needn't hang perpetually in place. Maybe the road can smooth out a bit. Maybe there are a few people left out there with charity in their hearts. Maybe there's hope after all.

A lot of "Maybes" there, true. But far better than outright negatives. And, for now, I'll take that.