by Christina Pyrgaki
The Wednesday before Nemo hit NYC and after a successful journal club meeting, which involved a combination of good science, brainy company, and fine liquor, I left the university with two friends and colleagues of mine at around 8 p.m. The three of us strolled in the cold evening all the way from The Rockefeller University to the grocery store on 60th Street and York Avenue; after we shopped for snacks, we headed to my friend’s place to have a glass of wine and chat.
It was probably around midnight when I returned home. I was tired, tipsy, and ready to go to bed, but as part of my every night routine, I checked my email. Granted that I stay up fairly late, my compulsive need to check my email before I go to bed is somewhat ridiculous; no important emails are going to populate my inbox at 1 a.m. and most of the emails in there contain information that is not going to be useful in any way until the next day. I have long promised myself that I will give up technology at least a couple of hours before sleep, as it is recommended by any self-respecting health website, but I have yet to keep my promise. That Wednesday night, sleepy as I was, it took me a couple of tries to log in to my email, and when I finally got my password right, at the top of my inbox, was an email with the subject “I found your wallet.” I got worried for a split second, but then I thought that this was probably a classified ad and it was not my wallet the sender found; it was someone else’s wallet. As I was about to delete the email I noticed that the email was addressed to me, but how was that possible? I had my wallet in the grocery store and I distinctly remembered putting it in my purse. So, my wallet was right… My thought was interrupted as, shuffling through my overloaded and disorganized purse, I realized that my wallet was not there. My wallet was missing! I hastily opened the email that contained the simple message: “I found your wallet on the street and I would like to return it. Best, RJ.” My brain raced for a second or two with “what if” scenarios. What if my wallet had been lost forever? Forget the credit cards that I would have to cancel and replace, and forget the cash that was in my wallet, it was the wait at the DMV to get a new driver’s license that made my skin crawl. I could not even bear to think of the endless list of paperwork that I would have to fill out, and the hours of waiting at the immigration office that I would be subjected to in order to get my green card replaced. But, irrational as this might be, it was losing my black wallet decorated with Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas that hurt the most. It was a gift from a dear friend of mine and the thought of parting with it was overwhelmingly distressing. I was so focused on my “what-if” scenario and so upset with myself ─how the heck did I manage to drop my wallet?─that, for a minute, I lost sight of the fact that due to a kind stranger, I was spared the catastrophe. I suspect that the reason that I initially chose to focus on the unfortunate incident of my dropping my wallet, rather than my good luck, was the fact that I would soon be forced to admit that my husband was right! I do not even remember how many times he yelled, “Close your purse!” and shook his head in disapproval, watching me leave the apartment with my purse half open and stuff hanging out of it! Now an “I told you so” was in order and, what’s worse, I totally deserved it! A couple of minutes into my self-blaming session I came to my senses and started realizing what was important here. I had just experienced a deliberate act of kindness from a complete stranger, in a big city that, according to the stereotype, is populated with self-centered, self-absorbed citizens. Well, my experience was one of those instances that triumphantly prove that the stereotype of the egocentric and inconsiderate New Yorker is nothing but a stereotype! New Yorkers know how to step up and do the right thing when the occasion arises.
The lady who found my wallet lives in midtown, and she just happened to be walking in my neighborhood on Wednesday night. She could have ignored the wallet, avoiding the inconvenience of picking it up altogether; she could have handed the wallet to a police officer, avoiding a further inconvenience for herself; however, she did none of the above. She picked up the wallet, went to the trouble of looking up my name online, found my email, and she emailed me right away to let me know that my wallet was found and that it was safe, saving me the trouble of cancelling my cards and, potentially, the inconvenience of a sleepless night. Not only did she do the right thing, but she went above and beyond to make sure that the mishap would not cause the careless owner of the wallet any unnecessary distress.
I emailed RJ back the same night, and early the next day my wallet was in my hands, along with all the cards, documents, and cash that was in it when I dropped it. While walking home after picking up my wallet, a question kept nagging me: would I have done exactly the same thing if I were in her shoes? Of course I would have. Why was I, then, so surprised with the thoughtful stranger’s kindness? And then it hit me: acts of kindness do not get as much publicity as human failure does. It is the reproachable, criminal, and downright evil behavior that we see more of in the news, potentially because despicable acts attract more attention and it is easier to capitalize on shock and fear than on kindness and inspiration! The overwhelming coverage of negative over positive behavior on the news creates the illusion that doing the right thing is a rare occurrence in our society, and we should not let that illusion fool us.
Losing my wallet was the best reminder that we can still count on each other. This society, with all its faults and shortcomings, is comprised of good people who will do the right thing, not because of fear of punishment or because of sheer obligation, but because doing the right thing to serve a fellow human is a reward in itself. Building a better world is a directed act of kindness away, and I was happy to be reminded of this in a way that is hard to ignore. Although from now on I will make it a point to carefully close my purse before I leave the apartment (mainly to avoid my husband’s judgmental looks), I have a renewed faith in this city, its residents and humanity in general. And how inspiring such faith is!