Last night when I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I saw a post that made me pause. It was a picture of a woman in a car at an ATM machine. The caption was from Crime Stoppers and noted that she was wanted for theft. Records indicated that she had arrived at the machine to find the prior customer had left their card, still active. She had withdrawn $600.
Ahh, the lure of easy money.
I know how hard it is to fight the lure of easy money. In 1994, I was celebrating my last night in Australia with friends and pizza. We’d already had the big party, so this night was just conversation tucked around my packing frenzy. We were heading back to the dorm so I could finish up when my eye caught a reflection on the sidewalk and I paused to looked down.
It was an envelope filled with cash.
To be specific, it was a bank-issued ziplock baggie with $750 in crisp bills folded neatly in half. There were no identifying marks, nothing that could help anyone determine that it was theirs.
My friends joked that it was a sign from above that we should have another blow-out going away party. “Drinks are on Mel!” There it was in my hand, easy money. No one would have judged me if I had said, “Heck yeah!” and lead them down to the closest bar. No one, except maybe me. I felt sick to my stomach.
One of my friends saw my distress and realized that I needed help. Together we came up with a plan. We went into the closest store and told the cashier that we had found an envelope outside and that if someone came looking for it we would leave it at the police station. Then we walked to the station and I sheepishly walked through the doors and up to the counter. The conversation went something like this.
- Me: Hi. I’d like to turn in this envelope of cash so that the owner can come here and get it.
- Police: Who is the owner?
- Me: I don’t know, there’s nothing that shows who it belongs to.
- Police: So, how did you come to have it?
- Me: I found it on the sidewalk.
- Police: You just found cash in an unmarked envelope and you want to turn it in?
- Me: Yes, that’s it.
- Police: You know the odds are very low that anyone will come for this?
- Me: I guess. But we told the shop owner near the place we found it that it would be here, if they came by looking.
- Police: Ok. [Pause] If no one claims it after 30 days it will be legally yours. You understand that, right?
- Me: No, I didn’t. But I’m an American and I’m leaving the country tomorrow. Can you just give it to a charity if it isn’t claimed?
- Police: [Pause] Sure, I think. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this.
And that should have been the end of it. The story should have ended there, something we brought up to the grandkids when we’d run out of good stories. “Hey kids, did I ever tell you about the time I found a big wad of cash on the ground my last night in Australia? My friends and I had a big laugh and then I donated it to some police charity. The next morning I got on the first of three planes to fly home to your dad.” Chuckles all around.
But that isn’t what happened. We left the police station and walked back to our dorm. I ran back to my room and focused on packing up the rest of my things and getting ready for the 36-hour travel extravaganza that would take me home. I was getting ready to settle in for the night when the phone rang. It was an older woman and she wanted to say thank you.
She went on to tell me her story. She told me that she had gone to the bank that day to withdraw a large amount to pay house painters. She told me she didn’t have a lot of money and that she had saved for the expense and if she hadn’t found the money it would have been a hardship. She had panicked when she realized the envelope had dropped out of her purse somewhere along her way home and meticulously backtracked her route. She had found our cashier, just down the street from her bank, and he had directed her to the police. Our crazy scheme had worked.
I told her how happy I was to hear that it worked out and then spent several futile minutes trying to talk her out of giving me a reward. Not because I couldn’t use the money (I was a typical struggling college student and every little bit of cash helped) but because I had no idea how I would fit one more task into the morning’s travel plans. I explained that I was leaving early in the morning for a 10:00am flight. I told her I was heading back to the United States and it was really fine, I was just glad she would be able to pay for the painting. But she refused to take no for an answer and that’s how I ended up getting $75 from a complete stranger minutes before I left for the airport.
Standing in duty free later that day I used the reward to buy myself a Swatch watch. At the time it seemed like a perfect symbol of the 1990’s and the kind of souvenir I could carry easily half way around the world. I wore it for years to remind myself what it looked like to say no to easy money and yes to something hard, like saving hard-earned dollars to pay a hard-working crew to paint your house.
Funny thing, though, today was the first time I’ve wondered what color the house was.