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 email@example.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.
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