A New Feature: What Would You Do?


A few weeks ago, a friend and I were strolling through downtown Arcata. We had nothing weightier on our minds than lunch, but we were about to come face to face with one of those moral dilemmas that come out of nowhere and leave you questioning your beliefs.

It was as close to a perfect day as I have experienced in some time. Even the weather was cooperating.

Midway through our walking tour, we came upon a woman standing in the center of the sidewalk. We stopped. She was a petite woman of a certain age, and even after we stopped just short of her, she didn’t make a move. She appeared transfixed by what she held in her hands: an open, overflowing, man’s wallet.

We could walk around and continue on our blissfully mindless way or we could accept this unexpected detour and get involved.

We could eat lunch later.

The woman looked up. “I just found this wallet,” she said to us. “Someone must have dropped it.” We agreed and moved a step closer. “I guess it fell out of his pocket,” she continued, digging deeper into her find.

“Well,” I said, “it clearly belongs to someone else.” She nodded, extracted a California driver’s license, and offered it up for inspection.

My friend admired the photo, saying something like, “You definitely want to get his wallet back to him …” I could tell that she was cajoling the woman, trying to win her trust. I would say that was the point at which I knew that the woman with the wallet had no intention of parting with it.

Later my friend conceded that she could tell the woman was “having trouble deciding what to do. I wanted to help her do the right thing.”

I was not so optimistic. We moved in a little closer as the woman with the wallet explored its depths.

“Look, here’s a check made out to him” the woman said.

“Oh, he’ll definitely want that back,” my friend said, still trying to encourage her.

“Here’s five dollars …” she opened another compartment. “No more money.” My friend smiled but the woman did not. For the first time since we met, she studied us, sizing us up, I thought.

I sized her up as well. I noticed that she wore multiple layers of clothing, and that her face looked weary and weathered. Was I imagining that she seemed more excited each time the wallet yielded something else?

“He’s going to want all of it back,” I said flatly. My friend shot me a look that I read as ease up.

“I just don’t know how to get it back to him,” the woman said.

My friend said that the police station was just a few blocks away. I suggested that she drop it in the mailbox across the street. My friend looked at me as if she could not believe I was serious. Or maybe leave the wallet with one of the local shopkeepers, I offered. My friend insisted that the police station made more sense.

The woman with the wallet continued her inventory.

“I know where the police station is,” she said with finality.

We had been dismissed.

She had tuned us out and I was hungry. She was not letting go of that wallet. What were we supposed to do, force her to give it to us?

“Let’s go,” I said to my friend.  She opened her mouth to offer a final pitch for the police station, and then thought better of it.

“Let’s just go,” I said again.

We walked away, tossing off a half-hearted “good luck” as we continued toward the café.

When we reached the café at the end of the block, we turned around, hoping to see that the woman had found the owner of the wallet, that all was well and right with this little corner of the world.

But the woman with the wallet had vanished.

“She had no intention of giving up that wallet,” I said to my friend.

“Really?” she said. “I thought she was just trying to figure out how to do the right thing. I mean, I knew the five dollars was history, but I figure the owner would have given her at least that much as a reward.”

I reminded my friend that that rewards are given, not taken, and it only works if the lost item is returned.

My friend was still trying to figure out how to fix the situation when a burly man in his thirties burst through the café’s front entrance.

“Dude,” he said to the owner, clearly a friend, “my wallet’s gone. I lost my wallet!” He seemed on the verge of hyperventilating. Crying was not an option, but the man without the wallet appeared to be as upset as any grown man I’ve seen in a very long time.

I immediately wished I had taken the wallet from the woman on the sidewalk. Instead, I had done less than nothing. I had simply snooped, and then went on my way when I encountered an obstacle.

My friend jumped up, took the owner of the lost wallet by the arm, and quickly led him out of the café.

“So?” I asked her when her returned 10 minutes or so later.

So? What do you think? So she’s gone. Long gone. Maybe she went to the police station …”

I raised my eyebrow.

“Or not,” she concluded.

We mulled over the incident for the remainder of the day. Should we have grabbed the wallet and run to the police station? Would the woman with the wallet have been justified in fighting us for it? Did her rights of possession trump ours on the moral high ground?

It’s a head-shaker.

What would you do?

Do you have a moral dilemma that you would like to share? We’d like to hear it, and maybe even learn from it (and definitely comment on it).  Send your story to us at anewscafe.com by emailing donig.anewscafe@gmail.com, and let’s see what our readers have to say. -Doni Greenberg


Bethany Chamberlain is a Napa Valley marketing consultant, writer, beekeeper and bee-lover.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

Bethany Chamberlain grew up in Redding and currently lives in Humboldt County.
Comment Policy: We welcome your comments, with some caveats: Please keep your comments positive and civilized. If your comment is critical, please make it constructive. If your comment is rude, we will delete it. If you are constantly negative or a general pest, troll, or hater, we will ban you from the site forever. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Comments are disabled on articles older than 90 days. Thank you. Carry on.

23 Responses

  1. Doug Cushman Doug Cushman says:

    I think that gently –but firmly–leading the woman with the wallet to the police station to deposit it there in the beginning would be the thing to do. Even not knowing that the wallet's owner was to appear later, it's just right. I'm no Superman or Mother Theresa but there is a moral line that one shouldn't cross in this case. I'd want to sleep at night.

    My two cents (and out of my own wallet too)

  2. Avatar Liz Merry says:

    I agree with Doug. Suggest they go to the police station together, and if she wouldn't go, call the police on your cell phone. I think you should have stayed with her and the wallet. We are all so afraid of hurting someone's feelings even when we suspect them of stealing! I hope he got his stuff back.

  3. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    What we SHOULD do and what we DO do are so often not the same thing. Even tho' we all know they should have "gently" insisted she take the wallet to the police and even have gone with her, I'm afraid most of us would have opted to go to lunch. A sad comment on the moral fiber that runs up most of our spines. I'd like to think I'd do the police thing, but righteousness is a scratchy shirt to wear!!

  4. Avatar Banjo Bill says:

    I would have offered to add $5 to the $5 in the wallet, PERHAPS she would have given up the wallet, and I would have taken it to the police station, or to the nearest store where it was found.

  5. Avatar Canda says:

    Bethany, I like your new feature. Definitely makes you think. As Adrienne said, what we should do, and do do, are sometimes two different things. I would hope that I would have walked with her to the police station, and maybe even give her $5 of my own money as encouragement. It's terrifying to loose your wallet, but I like to think most people are honest, and would return it. With an address on the drivers license, it can always be mailed. Welcome to anewscafe, Bethany!

  6. Avatar Laurie O'Connel says:

    I am not a lawyer, but for those of you who are, is it not illegal to, however "gently," "firmly lead" a person anywhere they clearly don't intend to go? Offering a ten-spot seems a deft (and less vigilante) way to handle the situation. Just sayin'.

  7. Avatar Barbara Stone says:

    I thought the mailbox was a good idea, especially if she was reticent to go to the police station. That way, she could return the wallet and not have to get involved with the police. And she could have helped herself to the $5 if she needed it without anyone knowing.

    also, offering to "pay" her for the wallet might have worked. I'm sure she only needed the money, not the rest of it.

  8. Avatar Kathy Chisum says:

    I think I would have checked with Directory Assistance or a phone book since you had the owners name and address there. Probably would have used my cell to call the police and probably asked the woman for her name. She would have been more likely to do the right thing if she had felt you weren't letting it go. I have turned in many found items and I would hope someone would do it for me and actually they have. Here's to Good Samaritans!

  9. Avatar Gabrielle says:

    Good grief, don't EVER attempt to gently lead anyone away, in a situation like this. You just started the physical altercation and are asking for trouble. Just start dialing on your cell and say, "Oh that's so great you found it! I'm calling the police right now. Maybe they can pick it up. What's your name in case the person wants to offer a reward??" Or be super aggressive and take their picture with your phone. After you have snapped the photo, it is likely the person will do the right thing.

  10. Avatar shelly shively says:

    Quite a dilemma, Beth. The physical description of the women lends me to believe that she was perhaps transient. I admit, I'm a little afraid of people in that state….what if she was psychotic ( I know, not all homeless people are psychotic, but there is a large percentage who have mental disorders)…try to touch her arm to escort her a few blocks all the way to the police station? I can't see that going without a fuss. It's difficult to think on one's feet when presented with a problem that is not black and white…..clearly, the wallet did not belong to the woman, and clearly, it should be returned to the owner…but how to get from point A to B? I suppose, if a person were the athletic type, and certain that the woman was not returning the wallet, you could quick-grab the wallet, and sprint to the police station. Or, as Liz Merry pointed out, simply calling the police. Theft is theft, whether someone intentionally steals, or "finds and keeps".

    How involved does one get? I like the "on the spot" reward offering to the woman…just give her $5 and offer to take the wallet to the police.

  11. Avatar Mary says:

    Hindsight being hindsight, if only one of you had called the police and had them come to you. It's so hard to be quick thinking in a new situation such as this.

    Now you've got one more experience under your belt. Something identical will probably never come up again but you've now got all of us thinking about it – broadening our thinking in case we come up with a similar situation.

    In that moment, being with one other woman friend, I would have been torn like the two of you, I'm afraid.

  12. Avatar Bethany Chamberlain says:

    All good answers, and believe it or not, I even thought of a few of them later. I wish I'd handled it differently: that's the point. I'm pretty sure that all of us encounter these unexpected opportunities to do the right thing, and no matter how we react, we nearly always do it better in hindsight, with the benefit of time and ideal conditions. The good thing about such an experience is that it makes you think — or at least it did me — and prompts discussion.

  13. Avatar Lisa says:

    I would have lied my head off. I would have determined in the first few seconds whether or not she was likely to turn the wallet in based on her behavior. For example, why did she feel the need to engage you two? I would guess at that point that she was either going through a moral dilemma and needed the approval of observers or she was, for whatever reason, not totally there. Either way, her need for approval would work in my favor.
    I've had my purse stolen before when I was young and it was such a hassle replacing my one credit card, license, etc. It would be a mega hassle now, with all the ATM's and ID's that we have to carry. So I would be willing to be dishonest, maybe I'd ask to see the license again and claim to know the person, say I'm an official, whatever it would take to get it out of her hands. I would give her the $5 and tell her that I was sure he'd want her to have it as a reward. She gets $5 guilt free, social approval ( which she already indicated that she wanted) and he gets his stuff back. I made a decision about his money, but odds are really good that he would rather get wallet minus money than no wallet.
    I would go to the restaurant, ask them to call the police station, write a note for the guy explaining where the $5 went, and get some dinner.

  14. Avatar Philbert says:

    This has happened to me. I found a wallet on the street once and since its owner seemed to have such a better lifestyle than I had at the time, I decided to just keep his wallet and assume his identity. After all, I had all his pertinent information, driver's license, etc. so I just went to the address on his ID and moved into his house. His wife didn't seem to notice or even care much — I kept it up for about three months before I had a falling out with his idiot boss. His kids were spoiled little brats too. I say any kid over the age of 7 who refuses to sell fruit at freeway on-ramps for their old man's beer money doesn't deserve the new Shaun Cassidy album. I suppose that makes me an old-fashioned "disciplinarian" but what do I care? The youth are just running amok anyway.

    By the way, I have some fresh peaches if you're interested. No moral dilemma when you're talking fresh produce.

    Just my two cents. Glad to be of service.

  15. Avatar Sue Tavalero says:

    Thanks for the new "WWYD" column. This will definately be our next family dinner discussion. One of the things about having the discussion is that maybe if this happens to any of us, we will have options that we have thought about ahead of time! Thanks!!!

  16. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    For a Klondike Bar.

    I would have told her to take the $5 as a reward and drop the wallet in the mailbox. Replacing the cards and license is worth the $5.

  17. Avatar pmarshall says:

    I doubt you could have lead her to the police station. She needed money. You could have offered her some money, but if there was a credit card there, she might have ideas of trying to use it. Try offering money and dropping the wallet in the nearby mailbox. If that doesn't work, then…….

  18. Avatar A Brady says:

    I actually lost my wallet years ago– left it on some rocks at a beach in Pacifica. I had been do some tide pool specimen sampling during low tide. I left the wallet closer to the beach, so if I slipped and fell in the water, it would not get wet.

    A woman walking her dog saw it and picked it up as it would have been underwater in another hour. Through my student body card (SFSU) she was able to get my phone number and called me. I went to retrieve it and found out she was a Pastor's wife of a Pacifica Congregation.

    I had only a few dollars in change in it but replacing all of the cards/license/student card/phone numbers/etc… would have been a real hassle.

    I went to a local florist and sent her a flowering plant as a Thank You.

    If I came upon someone with a lost wallet, I would be inspired to make sure it got back to its owner. Someone did it for me!

  19. Avatar pk5000 says:

    Why is this a dillema? Of course you should have insisted that she return the wallet. I don't understand the indecision.

  20. Dugan Barr Dugan Barr says:

    Taking anything out of the wallet would be theft, so you cannot encourage her to do that. That could make you an accomplice. She had not committed any crime, so attempting to get her to go anyplace, even the police station, using more than persuasion could be kidnapping. The only way you could take her to the police would be to do a citizen's arrest, which you could not do because she had committed no crime in your presence. Dropping the wallet into a post office facility is a good way for it to disappear forever. They are busy delivering stuff that has addresses on it, without trying to figure out something like this. Calling the police was not going to get you anywhere. They are maxed out. They were not going to respond to an all points alert about a lost wallet from someone who observed it being found. Long story short, you were helpless. If you could not convince her to do the right thing, it was not going to happen. I just hope she did not try to use the credit cards, because that is real trouble.

  21. Avatar Maggie says:

    I think when you are presented with this situation the first thing you need to
    consider: If this was my wallet, what would I hope someone would do?
    Of course, see that there is an effort to find the owner ASAP.
    If you truly think the person who found the wallet had no intention of
    trying to find the owner: (1) Give the person $5 myself. (2) suggest you will take it to the police department or as someone else suggested take it with you to the restaurant and ask them to call the police for you.
    As it turned out the poor soul who lost the wallet was in the restaurant. Your/his
    problem could have been solved immediately and and everbody could have had a
    good night's sleep. He would always think of you as the good Samaritan!