The first of four times I found money this year I was walking into a CVS pharmacy. It was just a couple of bucks, crumpled on the floor. I picked them up, looked around for a possible owner, and, finding no likely candidates, turned the money into the cashier. It was a no-brainer to turn it in, of course, but I did remark to my wife that it is very easy to be a good citizen when it’s only a few dollars. Turning in a $100 bill might be a little harder.
About a month later my girls convinced me to stop by McDonalds to get them a snack. It was raining, so I ran in by myself. When I got back to the car with my order of fries, I saw a $10 bill laying in a puddle by my door. I knew I hadn’t dropped it- I wasn’t carrying cash- and it hadn’t been there when I got out of the car. There was a dented, rusty old pick up truck on the other side of the 10, which hadn’t been there before, so I knew the money must have come from it. I picked up the bill, stared longingly at it for a minute, and then put it on the truck’s windshield, securing it under the wiper blade. As I suspected, this took a little more effort than those two bucks at CVS. After all, it was in a puddle in a parking lot, so finders-keepers should have been in full effect. But from the looks of the truck the owner probably needed that money, plus my girls, who are 7 and 11, were watching me from inside the car. I thought it would be an excellent lesson in honesty for them. Unfortunately, once I got back in the car, I found that the lesson they gleaned from witnessing this act of humanity was “Daddy is a sucker/idiot who just gave away two potential Happy Meals”. I decided that this would be a good time to have a talk with my little Gordon Geckos. I believe that “good” parents- ones who coach little league soccer and have professional family portraits done- call this a “teaching moment”. So I gave the girls a little talk about Karma.
Now I am not a religious man, but I do have a somewhat nuanced belief in Karma. I believe that kindness begets kindness, and I believe that doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching, can be empowering. I handed the girls their fries and talked to them from the front seat. “It’s all about doing the right thing, girls. It’s about Karma. Doing the right thing makes you feel better about yourself, which makes you a stronger person. That’s what Karma is. It’s that strength, and that inner happiness. It’s the confidence that it gives you to know you are a good person. And it builds on itself, and makes you want to do more nice things, which, in turn, continues to make you a better person. That’s the beauty of it.” They looked understandably confused. “A lot of people think that good Karma is something that will come back to them, like if you do a good thing you will somehow have something good happen to you, that nature will somehow pay you back. I’m not so sure about that. But that’s not the point. To me good Karma, like hard work, is its own reward.” I could see that they were starting to lose interest, as they are prone to do during talks that do not contain the words “Selena Gomez” or “Big Time Rush”. “O.K. Like tonight, I could have very easily stuck that 10 in my pocket and not thought twice about it.”
“Why didn’t youuuuu?”, they whined in unison, achieving that special harmony that only hungry, tired young sisters can, sounding like two kazoos being dragged down a chalkboard. One sad, burnt french fry was left between them, an exclamation point on their frustration.
“That’s what I’m trying to make you understand. Because giving it back felt good to me. It was a deposit in my Karma bank. Because now I am officially the kind of guy that anonymously returns money to strangers, and that is a pretty cool thing to be.” It was obvious that I was alone in thinking that I was anything close to “cool”.
“If you find more money, then will you buy us a Happy Meal?”
“But that’s just it. I didn’t return the money in the hopes that nature would ‘get me back’ and bring me good luck or more money. There’s no ‘goodness’ in that. That’s just being patient and greedy. I did it because it was the decent thing to do, and it made me feel pretty good to do it. I’m not going to find more money because of this. That’s not the point, and Karma and nature don’t work that way.” I sighed. I wanted them to believe in good Karma and sending out positive energy to the world, but not to have any expectation of some tangible reward.”One day you’ll understand.”
My hopes that these concepts would one day be understood were obliterated three weeks later, when I found money yet again, this time a wad of cash.
Chloe and I were leaving my wife’s office when I saw it. A small wad of bills folded in half, with a $20 on the outside. I stopped so suddenly that Chloe plowed into me. I looked around and there was not a soul in sight. I walked over and picked up the money. I looked around again, almost suspiciously, but there were no people and, as far as I could tell, no hidden cameras. I looked down at the money and gently fanned it between my thumb and finger. There were at least two $20s, two $10s, a five, and some ones. This. Was. Awesome. Not only was this a decent amount of cash (at a time when, to be honest, I was not so flush) but I could keep it guilt free. There was no place to turn it in, no person around who could be the owner. I looked around one last time before getting down to properly counting this cash booty when around the corner came the nice older lady parking enforcement cop. I see her around pretty often, and she’s always whistling and she smiles a lot, but as soon as I saw her I was immediately wracked with guilt. Oh, stupid irrational guilt. I don’t know why this happens to me, but it dates back to at least grade school. I remember my first grade teacher whirling around from the chalkboard saying “Who shot that spitball?!” I was completely innocent, but still I went wide-eyed and flushed with guilt and remorse and fear and a bizarre desire to confess. It must be some deep seated fear of authority, or a related neurosis, because I felt the same way as soon as I saw that friendly police woman. I felt guilty, and I knew I looked guilty- cash money fanned out in my hand like some sort of gansta’ farma’ drug dealer. Doing deals in front of my 7 year old daughter. Disgusting! The cop walked in my direction and gave a half nod and smile toward my familiar face. I was overwhelmed with the desire to confess, to what I don’t know, as my guilt morphed into near panic. “Hi! I just found all this money on the ground!” I said in the voice of someone who had not, in fact, found the money, but had just stabbed someone and stolen it. What is wrong with me? She took the money and raised her eyebrows. “Wow. This is a lot! I better go turn it in at the station.” She seemed a bit stunned by the whole thing as she took several steps before stopping to turn around and thank me. “No problem” I said, feeling inexplicably relieved that I was off the hook for a drug deal that had taken place only in my mind.
Chloe and I went back to Tessa’s office to tell her what what happened. Along the way I told Chloe that that was a great example of doing the right thing, how nice and helpful and on-the-spot police are, and that our bank was just bursting with good Karma. The entire narrative was really just me trying to convince myself, but I was glad that Chloe was there to hear it.
When I told Tessa what happened she pretty much voiced the exact thoughts that I was trying to stifle in my head. “You did WHAT? Why? What were you…”. I cleared my throat and gave a sharp glance toward young, impressionable Chloe. Tessa kept her eyes on me and slowly shook her head. “Did you at least give her your name and number so they can give it to you when nobody claims it?”
“I…uh…umm”. I couldn’t even complete a sentence. The smart, rational part of my brain was furious with the part of my brain that had been at the wheel for the past 20 minutes. At the same time the evil, greedy part of my brain was trying to blend in with the logical part (sometimes called “rationalization”), and the goodness part was indistinguishable from the guilt center. It was a mess in there. Karma decided to hang back until things calmed down.
I went back outside to look for the lady cop. After twenty minutes with no luck Chloe and I headed home.
It was Friday, and over the weekend the warring factions in my brain calmed down. The further removed I was from the incident the more I was able to convince myself that I turned in the money because it was the right thing to do, and not because of some weird, intrinsic guilt complex that I don’t understand. Karma accepted this explanation and was back in spades.
On Tuesday I had to go by Tessa’s studio so I decided to look for the cop again. Surely she’d still remember me. Unfortunately Bad Parking Enforcement Cop was working instead, a man who was surely demoted to parking lot duty for using excessive force on crippled children, or perhaps because even other cops thought he was a tool. I had to drop off a package for Tessa one time, and the only open space was a metered one. I left the car running, left the girls in the car, and was done and back in less than a minute. As I was about to pull out he tapped on my window with his night stick and made me get out of the car. He gave me a long, unwarrantedly angry lecture about “trying to park and not pay.” Chloe got worried after a few minutes and asked out the window “Are you in trouble, Daddy? Are you going to jail?”
“Oh, no, honey. Daddy is just talking to this policeman. Daddy’s not going to jail.” I smiled reassuringly.
“Your daddy doesn’t know how to follow the rules,” growled the brand new number one most despised jackass of all time.
So there was no way I was going to talk to him about the money.
“Why don’t you just go to the station and act like you’re the one that lost it?” my always sensible wife asked when I got back to her office.
“Hey, that’s an idea. It’s been 4 days, so if no one has claimed it yet I don’t think they’re going to.”
“Do you seriously believe that whoever dropped that money would even think to go to the police station to find it? It’s still there, I guarantee it, and nobody is ever going to claim it.” I headed outside to the station.
During my 3 block walk I completely convinced myself that this was an O.K. thing to do. Tessa was right: nobody was going to claim this money. I was just shortening the 30 or 60 or 90 day waiting period until they gave it back to me anyway. I walked into the station feeling pretty good.
There were two middle aged women at two desks behind a glass partition with a speaker hole in it. One of them looked up. “Can I help you?”
I tried to look sheepish. “Uh, yeah, my wife is making me do this, and I know this sounds ridiculous, but did anyone turn in some lost cash on Friday?” My voice sounded strangely deep and uneven to me, and I could feel an unexpected pin prick in my Karma.
“How much money was it?”
“I’m not sure exactly, but it was close to $100.”
The woman looked at me intently. I had her full attention. The other woman kept looking ahead at her computer screen, but was obviously focused our conversation.
“What denomination of bills did you lose?”
“Some $20s, $10s, $5s, $1s, the whole gamut.” I was feeling very unexpectedly shaky.
“And where did you lose it?”
I named the two cross streets around where I found the money. Without a word she walked out a door near the back of the room. Her co-worker looked at me, trying to hide a smile.
She was gone about 5 minutes, which was more than enough time for my conscience to go bat-shit crazy on me. I had rationalized to myself that getting the money was O.K., I would be getting it back anyway. But I had failed to factor in lying to the police. People lie to the police every day, but those are bad people: miscreants, thugs, criminals. And they do it as an act of self preservation: to stay out of trouble, or prison, or the electric chair. I was lying to the police (which suddenly occured to me was probably itself a crime) not out of self preservation, but purely out of greed. My Karma was deflating rapidly.
The woman returned with a manilla envelope and a big smile. “Here you go! You need to thank your wife! This got turned in on Friday.”
“No way!” I tried to fake the joy I should have been feeling. “I can’t believe it! Wow!” I tried to think of what else a person in this position would say, and I asked a question that will forever haunt me, “Do you know who turned it in?”
“Some man,” she said admiringly. “Didn’t give his name or anything. Just makes you feel good to know that there are still people like that in the world.” Her words were like razor blades.
“Isn’t it amazing?” her co-worker chimed in. “It’s people like that that restore your faith in humanity!”
It was horrible. The admiration they had for me- the me I was just 4 short days ago- juxtaposed viciously with the petty, greedy, lying me who was being handed $93.00. “Isn’t it great that there are still some really good, decent people out there? I just wish I could shake his hand.” My Karma hemorrhaged all over the floor.
I’m trying to win some Karma back, but it has some trust issues with me these days. I took the family out to dinner that night, courtesy of the what now felt like blood money. The girls had fun and the meals, I am told, were delicious. I couldn’t really taste much of anything. When we were walking to the car after dinner I saw a $5 bill in the parking lot. I wanted to spit on it. I just shook my head and walked around it to the car. But then I had a thought, and I went back and picked it up. I went back in the restaurant and put the $5 on our table as an extra tip. Karma, at least for the moment, stopped glaring at me. I’m hoping we’ll get back together soon.