We had just had a fabulous vacation through England and Ireland.
Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.
Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England
But two weeks is as much fun as anyone in my income range is allowed, so were heading back home. We were in an airport kind of mood, that is, that particular brand of autopilot where you tell yourself that there’s nothing to see here, nothing important to do, you just have to go through the motions, stand in the required lines, show the required documents, take off your shoes when told, and finally, only when you’re tired beyond imagining, get back to your own bed, where you will crash for 12 hours or more.
Claire in an airport kind of mood
We boarded an Aer Lingus plane in Dublin that took us to London’s Heathrow, debarked that plane, then took a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.
It was on that bus that I reached for my fanny pack. It was gone.
Inside the fanny pack were some important things. My new cell phone. My wallet. And inside the wallet, my driver’s license, my credit card, and about $400 in cash, both English and American.
That was the beginning of a panic that was not a panic, because I don’t believe in panic, I believe in remaining calm because it’s much more useful, panic being a version of fear and insecurity and other useless emotions, because you really should remain calm and ask, What emotion will get me what I want? What action will get me what I want? But beneath it all, there was this tiny voice screaming.
First, we jumped off the bus and I backtracked. I looked at the seats we had been waiting at. Not there. I checked twice and thrice and even six times. Still not there.
I stood up and cast my mind back. I quickly narrowed it down to only three possibilities:
1) I had left it on the bus that had taken us to Terminal 3, or
2) I had left it on the plane, or
3) I had dropped it while walking down the debarkation gangway.
I glanced at my watch. We still had two hours before our flight, but at Heathrow, that was precious little time, since everything is so far away from everything else. So I parked Claire and my mother and went off in search of the Aer Lingus desk. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere in Heathrow without following the rest of the herd to Baggage Claim, but trust me, it’s extremely difficult. You ask questions of airport workers. You get vague answers. You scramble. You go down elevators and hit dead-ends.
Ten minutes later, I found myself looking through a huge window one floor down at the Aer Lingus desk, but there seemed to be no way to get down there.
“You have to go through security first,” an employee told me.
Okay, ugh, so I stood in line to go through security, which of course is the slowest thing in the world when your fanny pack is lying on the ground somewhere. I took a deep breath. I glanced at my watch and cringed. I took off all my metal objects and dumped them into the tubs. I walked through the metal detector, trying not to evince panic, because that’s what suspicious people evince, and who wants to be unnecessarily frisked and questioned when you’re looking for your fanny pack on deadline? I gathered up all my metal objects and put them on again. Then I lit out for the Aer Lingus desk.
The woman at Aer Lingus made a quick call to Lost & Found.
“It’s not there,” she said. “It might not have gone through the system yet. But right now, your problem is that you have very little time to get on your flight. When you get to L.A., you’re going to have to email Aer Lingus Lost & Found.”
“Can’t I just spend the night here?” I asked.
“You’d have to buy a whole new ticket. You need to start thinking about your connection.”
So I made the decision that I didn’t want to make. I would leave my fanny pack behind.
It was such a long, long flight back home, 13 hours in the air. I tried to divert myself with movies and reading, but I kept thinking about my wallet, which was somewhere out there, I didn’t know exactly where. Maybe I had left it in the airplane seat. Before leaving, I had glanced at the seat and seen nothing, and Claire had asked, as well (“Did you leave anything?”), but perhaps I had left it beneath the seat. Or maybe it had come undone walking down the gangway. Or maybe it had come undone in the first bus. I replayed moments over and over again while watching a bad Kevin Costner movie on the seatback in front of me.
I wondered, as well, about the person who would find it. I’ve discovered that there are strangers who surprise you with their integrity, but I’ve also been surprised by those who consider petty larceny to be their God-given right. I once had a roommate who found a wallet and considered himself a saint because he took the cash and dropped the wallet into a mailbox. He was so proud of himself, like maybe that alone would get him into the pearly gates. You never know what kind of punk schlub dufus you’ll get.
I worried about the bureaucratic forest that lay before me, as well. I hated depending on email. I was determined to use their phone lines instead, but worried about breaking through the Kafkaesque levels of voicemail hell.
Suddenly, my mother was talking to me on the plane.
“When you were a child, I was doing laundry in a laundromat,” she said. “Later that day, while I was cooking dinner, this policeman appears at my door with a wallet. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Oh yes, it is,’ I say. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it. And he says, ‘I’m sorry, but the money’s gone.’ I had about $25 in it. So I took it and looked into my secret compartment. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, at least they didn’t take that bill, because I was saving it up,’ and pulled out my emergency $100 bill, which was folded into a little little small piece. And the look on his face, I have to tell you, was, like, ‘Oh God, I missed it.’ And that’s how I knew that that cop was the one who took the rest of the cash.”
When we finally got back to our home in Los Angeles, we had been up for over 24 hours, but it was still only early evening, so I got onto the phone and started calling overseas. I spent a couple hours that evening, and then another couple hours the next morning, just calling and filling out forms online.
All the while, I was wondering how the dice would roll. One of the things that I’ve realized in my life is that humans are not basically good, but they’re not basically bad, either. They have the capacity for both. There are some humans who have done bad things, such as Adolph Hitler (who was a person, after all, not just an epithet), Ty Cobb, Shannon Doherty (whose heart leaps, I’m sure, being mentioned in the same context as Hitler), Charles Manson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, OJ Simpson, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh, Donald Sterling, et al.
Conversely, there are some humans who have done wondrous things, such as Mother Teresa (who was a person, after all, not just an icon), Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies (who helped hide Anne Frank), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Bill W., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, et al.
I was searching for a good person. Someone who would pick up the wallet and have not a question in their mind.
Oh, this goes to the Lost & Found, they would say to themselves.
Yes! My lucky day!
I envisioned travelers, each eager to reach their destination. I thought the probability was high that they would do the right thing. After all, when you’re traveling, your mind is focused on getting your ordeal over, not gaming the system. But when it came to employees, I was a little more apprehensive. Once an employee gets used to a job, his or her real self comes out.
So it was that I was on the line with a woman who worked in Aer Lingus Lost & Found. She was idly instructing me how to call back when she stopped, as if she had spotted something on a computer screen.
“What color was the wallet?” she asked.
“Brown,” I said.
“Black,” Claire said.
“My girlfriend says it was black.”
“And how much was in it?”
“About $300 in American dollars and $100 in British pounds and euros.”
“And what brand was the phone?”
“LG. It’s a new phone.”
It turned out the bag and its contents had been found and returned. That, however, wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.
“You’re going to have to send somebody down here to pick it up,” she said. “Do you have a friend in London?”
I couldn’t really think of anybody who would fit that description.
“Well, then I recommend that you hire a courier to come down here to pick it up,” she said. “They can then put it in a Fed Ex box and mail it to you.”
She gave me some sort of identification number for the items and told me to hang up and organize the retrieval.
Things were looking up, to be sure, but couriers sounded expensive. I turned to the computer and inquired about sending a package weighing .99 pounds from London to Los Angeles. It turned out to cost $139. In fact, taking the courier/Fed Ex route might easily eat up all the cash I had in that wallet.
Kind of defeated the purpose.
So I turned to another strategy: friends. To be frank, I really had no friends in London at all. We had spent three days there, but more as tourists than anything else. The only possibility was a fabulous magician I had seen at the Magic Circle. We had spent a couple hours watching his charming and amazing tricks, and I had shown him some wonderful ones, too, and at the end, he had given me his business card. I had meant to call him, but only to tell him how much I enjoyed his magic.
Now, I realized, I was in a position to manipulate him into helping me as if he were a friend.
That didn’t feel good.
Instead of doing that, I decided to make it a financial transaction. I would ask for the name of a young magician who could pick up the bag from Heathrow in return for a fee of 50 pounds. Surely Chris wouldn’t have the time or incentive to do that kind of job, but perhaps a trusted 22-year-old buddy might.
So I called him. In fact, he was happy to talk magic with me, and we stayed on the phone for a full half-hour. We talked about many things. His day job, which was a secure job with a city council. The transition he hoped to make to full-time magician. The great magician Michael Vincent, whom he had known since he was a teenager. Vincent’s recent descent into deafness, and the effect that might have on his career. A half-hour later, I felt like the victim was sufficiently softened up to refer me to a young magician.
“Listen,” I said, “I was going to call you, anyway, but I have a favor to ask. I need a young magician who could do a gig for me. It doesn’t pay enough for you, but here’s the gig.”
And then I explained my predicament with the wallet.
“As you can see, I need someone to pick up my wallet from Heathrow and put it in the mail for me,” I said.
Chris laughed. He was way ahead of me.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.
That was Saturday morning, and strangely enough, he said that his daughter was flying into London on Sunday evening. But there are four airports that serve London, and the odds that she was coming in at Heathrow were less than even.
“Honey!” he called over to his wife. “What airport is Shana flying into?”
Turned out it was, indeed, Heathrow. That moment seemed delivered by an angel, although once you start thinking of everything in terms of angels and devils, the devils seem to vastly outnumber the heavenly beings, which seems to diminish every good thing that has ever happened to you, and you certainly don’t want that.
I emailed Chris instructions on all the details of the pickup. Then all I had to do was wait for 28 hours. It was strange to depend on someone so many miles away, and not only that, but to sit back and do nothing. After all, I’ve always felt that it’s only diligence and focus that is rewarded. But in this case, there was no alternative.
By 3 pm the next day, I was sitting at a Father’s Day party in Brea, Claire sitting beside me. I was talking to my cousin Maria about Israel, which is ridiculous because we’re not Jewish and know nothing about it, but still, we were talking about the latest trouble in that troubled land. That’s when I checked my email with the message that I had been waiting for.
“Just to let you know, mission accomplished,” Chris wrote. “All went like clockwork and everything seems to be there as described….Going to bed now.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
But the marathon wasn’t over yet, and it certainly had gone into marathon territory, and if anybody is left reading at this point, you’re running a marathon, as well, and wondering whether the finish line is anywhere nearby, I’m sure. The thing is, though, we still had to get the items safely into my hands in Los Angeles.
The next day, I left a message for Chris, but didn’t hear back, either by phone or email. That was strange. Something suspicious within me started to wonder whether I was going to have trouble getting it back from him, whether he had lured me into choosing him just so he could screw me over, and for a short moment, I was absolutely convinced that he was a conniving con man. It’s a small, suspicious part of me, clearly, because that suspicion was based on absolutely nothing at all.
The next day, I talked with Chris. We went through the items one by one, and yes, everything was there.
“Okay,” I said, “just throw away the fanny pack. It’s old and will just add weight to everything.”
“All right,” Chris said. “I’ll put everything else in a bubble pack and send it.”
“Great,” I said. “Use the pounds in the wallet to pay for the postage.”
After I hung up, I wondered what it would all cost. I wondered whether I should have told him to throw away the wallet, too, to cut down on the weight. And other people had second thoughts, too.
“Did he send it registered mail?” my friend Rich asked.
“Oh man! I told you to send it registered mail. It’ll take a million years to get here, if it ever arrives!”
I inwardly bemoaned Rich’s cynicism with regard to government services. I wondered if he would’ve voted for The Great Satan, Margaret Thatcher. Still, the proof would be whether the damn thing arrived or not, and nobody could tell me for sure whether it would. Once again, my zen challenge would be my patience.
So I waited. Breathed deeply. Tried not to think about it. There’s no use in feeling disappointment twice, after all. On top of that, I tried to drive perfectly, since I didn’t have a driver’s license on me. I started carrying my passport wherever I went. I activated my old phone. I went on with my life.
Finally, six days later, an Asian postal carrier arrived at the door.
“Do you know what amazing story lies behind this package?” I said, smiling widely as I took the package.
So I gave him a quick rundown, then let him go. It didn’t do the saga justice. Maybe an HBO series or a Netflix contract like “House of Cards.”
I smiled. It was so unlikely. The wallet had made its way from London to Los Angeles, passing through so many hands along the way, making so many precarious stops where it could have been snatched up and kept, never to be seen again.
And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what it all means about human nature. After all, there are some wonderful people in this world, people like my girlfriend Claire, who will do a favor to anybody if asked, and Chris Wood, who went out of his way to help a Yank, and that Aer Lingus lady, who gave me such good advice, and then, going back all the way to the beginning, whoever it was that found it in the first place, that faceless person who was honest enough to turn in a wallet in a fanny pack and log it into the system, not keeping even a dollar for herself. Thinking about it that way, it was a little miracle, a chain of good people I had happened upon, unblemished by even one bad person.
Oh, I thought, if only I could spend the rest of my days walking only among people like that.