by Tamim Ansary
Someone used the phrase “found money” the other night, and it got me thinking. I’ve found money a few times. Not often, and never very much of it, but I have found money. And every time I did, it seemed to bring out a superstitious streak in me, a streak I was not otherwise aware of even having.
The first time was the year I transferred to Reed College. That fall, I wanted to hitchhike to Santa Cruz, where a childhood friend of mine lived. I felt some trepidation, though. Hitchhike all the way to Santa Cruz? Hitching was not new to me, I’d been doing it around town, but Santa Cruz? That was 700 miles away. And I was always poor in those days, which was fine as long as I stayed on campus, but I’d be leaving home with a dollar in my pocket—literally: one dollar—and God only knew where I might get stranded. Still, if I could just make it to Santa Cruz in a day, I’d be fine, right? Skipping food for a day isn’t a privation, it’s a spiritual exercise. It’s called fasting. It’s good for the soul.
So I trudged to the freeway ramp and stuck out my thumb. Then, as I was standing there, I looked down—whoa! A five dollar bill right next to my shoe! All my doubts cleared away. Here was a sign from above: the Universe wanted me in Santa Cruz. And sure enough, I soon got a ride to California.
A week later I was back on the road, headed home, and broke again. The five dollars had run out. I found myself at a ramp, trying to get a ride onto the freeway that crossed the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
A topless VW—hand-modified—pulled over. Two of us were trying to catch a ride and we both scampered over, but I was in the lead. The driver was a gorgeous woman with loose long blond hair, wearing hot Levi shorts and a blouse left carelessly half unbuttoned, projecting, may I say, freedom, confidence, and a world of dreams-come-true. She wore no (apparent) makeup which meant she was part of my counterculture world. Could this get any better?
“I’m going to 101,” she said.
“I’m going to Portland,” I confessed sadly.
“You can get there by the coast road,” she assured me. “I’ll drop you off in Petaluma. Get in.”
But the guy behind me scoffed. “101 to Portland? That’ll take a week.”
“Bullshit,” Beauty chirped, tossing her long hair cinematically. “I’ve hitched that highway a hundred million fucking times. Never had any trouble getting a ride.” I still remember the number she cited: a hundred million fucking times! I was almost swayed. But some little voice inside me whispered that I might have more trouble getting rides than she. And I couldn’t spend a week getting back to Portland. A day without food is fasting. A week without food is starving. I turned away disconsolate. The other guy got the ride, I watched them drive away, and hung my head. And then saw that—what the hell?—I was standing on a $20 bill! Dear Universe, message received! Never let a beautiful stranger sway you from your purpose!
I was still celebrating my good fortune when a couple stopped for me in a vintage MG sports car convertible, the most beautiful car ever built. They were Berkeley grad students, a few years older than me: politically active, smart, well-informed, young, cool—just the type of folks I longed to hang out with. Best of all, they were going all the way to Eugene, where I knew people. Thank you, found money. The car was a two-seater, unfortunately. There was a space behind their seats, but it was piled high with bags and suitcases. If I wanted to ride with these two, I would have to perch precariously on top of the pile. Fine. I didn’t mind. A ride is a ride.
We zipped along for many hours, having a great old time and then—the road started climbing into the mountains. The car started chugging. The car slowed down. It slowed down some more. Finally the guy pulled over. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we just can’t make it over the mountains with you in the car. We’ll have to let you out here.”
You’re not my brother. You’re heavy were the words that crossed my mind.
“Here” was a lonely stretch of highway situated roughly halfway between Noplace and Nowhere. I didn’t argue, I got out, but I wasn’t happy. Night had fallen hours ago. A stiff breeze was blowing. I remembered the radio saying it might snow tonight. I was not prepared for the weather, I never am. Usually, it doesn’t matter, but this time? The couple drove away, leaving me alone in the dark. If only they had not picked me up, I would still be in the Bay Area with a shot at holing up somewhere warm and surviving the night. What had the Universe been trying to tell me with that twenty-dollar bill?
But then—out of the glowering gloom—came a car. It was a four-door late-model Chevrolet sedan such as people like me didn’t own. To my gasping disbelief, it pulled over. When I leaned down to look through the window, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The driver was a woman, and she was a mother: her baby was in a car-seat right next to her. She invited me to get into the back seat. On this lonely stretch of highway, at this time of night, a mother with a baby had stopped for some stranger she couldn’t even see clearly in the dark. What was she thinking? Where was her judgment? I could have been anyone! I wanted to scold her, but it seemed like the wrong time to advise her not to stop for strangers.
She did stop and I will be forever grateful. She drove me fifty miles to Ashland. She dropped me off near Southern Oregon College. There, some college students took me into their room, just as the snow started. The next day, safe, satisfied, and well rested, I made it home.
The next time I found money, what I found was a billfold with two fifty-dollar bills in it. I was out of college by then, living in a house with a bunch of other people like me, in a neighborhood with a bunch of other houses like ours. There were dozens of us in that ‘hood. We were a tribe of intertwined lives, busy building a new civilization in the rubble of the old one that was now forever crumbling (we thought). Five of us were a band. They practiced in their basement, and bunches of us often hung out there, dancing, drinking beer, smoking dope, and telling tall tales. One day, walking home from an afternoon of such hilarity, my friend Glenn and I found the billfold on the street.
We were all kinda’ poor, our “tribe”. Some of us had no income at all. A few of us had jobs as dishwashers and such. One of us was a substitute teacher and she got maybe three or four days of work a month. You get the picture. So a hundred dollars—wow! But the thing is, in this billfold was a slip of paper, and on that slip of paper was an address. No name, no explanation, just an address. We didn’t know whose, but it was pretty safe to guess that if we went there, we might find the owner of the billfold.
Thereupon, a spirited discussion flared. The address was in the Mt. Tabor area, parts of which were rather posh. One of us, a guy named Larry, made the argument that a billfold this nice, a neighborhood that nice, whoever lost the money wasn’t poor. Poor folks don’t carry around a hundred dollars in cash. And they sure don’t carry it around in the form of two fifty-dollar bills. Bills like that tend to hang out with others of their own kind. Returning the cash to the fat capitalist bastard who dropped it would be wrong. He’d just use it to crush more widows and orphans. For us, this found money represented two months rent. What would Robin Hood do? That was the question.
This argument made some of us squeamish, however. My friend Glenn and I finally convinced each other to check out the address. What we found was a run-down bungalow on a small lot in a neighborhood that frankly wasn’t upscale. When we knocked a timid voice bleated, “Who’s there?”
Glenn cleared his throat. “We found a billfold? With some money in it?”
A silence. Then the door opened. We were looking at a shabbily dressed woman in her late fifties. Her hands had the rough look of minimum-wage work. Her eyes squinted. She walked with a hobble. We could tell at a glance that this human being’s life was a daily struggle. At that moment I realized how lucky we were to be young and strong and just starting out, filled with hope. The only thing about her that didn’t look discouraged—at that moment—was her face. Her face was the sun coming up in the east. We’d found her money? We’d brought it back? She opened the billfold, saw the two fifty-dollar bills, and started to cry.
I don’t remember how she happened to have the money or how she’d lost it. I only know that there was nothing I could have bought for a hundred dollars that I would remember today the way I remember the look on that old woman’s face when she got her lost money back.
Years later, I was living in San Francisco and working for a textbook publisher on Polk Street. One morning, on my way to work, I stopped to get some cash. When I stepped up to the ATM, I saw that whoever had used that machine last had forgotten to take his or her money. The receipt was gone, but the money was still there, a green tongue sticking out of a slender mouth.
And it was the maximum withdrawal: seven $20 bills, as I recall. I took it into the bank and told a bank employee behind a desk where I’d found it. His eyes went wide. He stood up, leaned across his desk, shook my hand, and accepted the money, solemnly declaiming, “It’s not every day you meet an honest man.”
I felt pretty good about myself for a couple of blocks. Then I wondered what that guy had done with the money. Come to think of it, what could he have done but put it in his pocket? By the time I slipped behind my desk and started editing vocabulary activities for a fifth grade health sciences textbook, I was feeling bitter, bitter regret.
Which brings me to the last time I found money. I was still living in San Francisco then. I was married, Debby was pregnant with our first child, and we had to find a new place to live, one with room for our baby. Every place we’d looked at had been too small, too big, too expensive, too weird, or too something. Then we saw a listing somewhere for an apartment in Diamond Heights. The rental agent wanted to show us the apartment that night, at 9 pm, which seemed rather late, rather odd, but we said okay. The place turned out to be in a drab apartment complex, a cluster of two-story buildings that shared a parking lot. Dimly-lit walkways ran between the buildings. The edges of the paths and the rim of the parking lot were lined with dingy hedges and bushes, cookie-cutter landscaping. There were a few cars in the lot, but no humans to be seen. We got out of the car, Debby tottering a little from the weight of her big, pregnant belly; but already she was shaking her head. “I don’t like this. No,” she said. “No. This isn’t for us.”
I agreed. “Let’s get out of here.”
But even as I was turning, I saw a twenty-dollar bill sitting on the concrete. I went over to pick it up, and as I did, I saw another bill a few feet away. Hmm. I went over to pick that one up and saw a couple of more twenties. In fact, I followed a trail of money to the edge of the lot and saw more bills under the bushes. I got on my hands and knees and peered. One bill I could reach easily; another I had to stretch for; yet another one I’d have to crawl to get.
By then, Debby was tugging at my collar. “That’s enough. Come on. This is creepy. We gotta’ get outa’ here!”
Frankly, I was feeling nervous too. How could there be twenty-dollar bills strewn all over a deserted parking lot? It smelled of drug deal gone bad. And one thing about drug deals gone bad: they featured bad guys, who might be coming back.
We hustled to the car and got the hell out of there, lickety split. I have no idea how much money we left behind. Could have been a lot. Even what we’d collected, we didn’t count till we got home. It came out to 240 bucks, just about the amount of found money I had given to that nameless bank clerk and the old woman we had tracked down in Portland. This time I kept what we’d found, no guilt, no regrets. I figured the Universe owed me one.I had paid my debt to karma up front.