It was February, 1979, and I was freezing. A childhood spent in the temperate North Carolina piedmont had not prepared me for New Haven's frigid, gusty winters. I had just finished an hour-long jog around the indoor track at Yale's Payne Whitney gymnasium, and the contrast between the steamy, humid dressing room and the bitter late afternoon wind brought tears to my eyes.
I was waiting to meet my best friend and classmate outside the gym after his racquetball game. Jimmy wasn't there yet, so I stood shivering, stomping my feet to keep them from getting numb. We were going to walk the mile over to Kline Biology Tower to study together, and I dreaded the walk more than the grueling hours of microbiology and immunology that lay ahead.
Jimmy and I were first-year graduate students in Yale's Department of Human Genetics, and finances were shoestring-thin. Each of us received a whopping $3500 a year stipend-- less than ten dollars a day for room and board, food, clothing, and the rare evening of entertainment-- and the intensive academic demands left no time, or energy, for part-time employment. Jimmy was married to a woman who worked as a secretary at Yale, so he had it better than I did; still, we walked, rather than take the transit bus, to save money.
I finally spotted my buddy exiting the gym, still buttoning up his brown plaid car coat. He didn't look cold at all. As we started to walk, something made me look down at the ground. Perhaps I was checking to see if my feet were still attached to my body. Whatever the reason, I looked. And I saw a gloriously beautiful, neatly-folded twenty-dollar bill lying on the filthy pavement. I scooped it up and said what any na´ve twenty-one year old from Forest City, North Carolina would say: "We have to turn this in!"
Jimmy Costanza grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, a bustling ethnic community where, in his words, "things fall off the backs of trucks." He doubled over in hysterics. "Turn it in? To who? And why? It's found money! Treat yourself to a pair of boots, fa Chris' sake!"
My brown suede lace-up shoes were the target of constant teasing among my classmates. They were the only shoes I owned, other than the sandals I had worn till my feet turned blue sometime in October. I could buy myself some boots! And leather gloves, too! The tattered brown pieces of crap I had on were always wet, always filling my one-room apartment with the stench of wool drying on the radiator. What an intriguing thought-- to buy some decent apparel!
Or food! The Orange Market sold the most delicious salt bread, rock-hard on the outside and chewy on the inside...
"But it's not mine," I protested. "Somebody will come looking for this. Look how crisp and carefully-folded up it is. This means a lot to whoever lost it, Jimmy. I'm turning it in."
"Lynnie, Lynnie, Lynnie. This is the real world, not Nawth Caralina. Keep the money and spring for a bus-ride for both of us. Will that make you feel any better?"
That's what I did, but it didn't make me feel any better. Somebody had lost twenty dollars, and I had kept it. I could have tried to find it's rightful owner, but I didn't want to look like some country bumpkin. I was already the acknowledged hillbilly of the class, the one people called "Lee-un," because that was the way I had always pronounced my name. Why make myself look even more foolish? And where would I turn the money in, anyway?
Word got around that I had a twenty dollar bill I wouldn't spend because it belonged to someone else. I told my classmates that I would hold onto it unless I became utterly desperate. I never became that desperate. For the five years I was at Yale, it was common for me to hear, "Spend your twenty yet, Lynne?" My answer was always the same.
I could have given the money away to someone who needed it more than I did, but I held onto it, for reasons I couldn't explain. I tucked the bill into the same crevice in my wallet that held the five-dollar bill my grandfather had given me as "safe money"
when I went off to Yale, and I tried to forget about it.
For twenty-two years, I held onto that twenty. Folded exactly as I had found it, transferred from wallet to wallet as the decades passed, it became a symbol to me of things I had not earned, a caution against achieving personal gains at other people's expense. It told me something about the kind of person I wanted to be.
There were times when I ate cold soup out of the can. There were times when the only other money I had in my wallet was a fifty, and the clerk at the convenience store grumbled that she couldn't break anything that big. For fourteen years, I was married to a doctor who earned upwards of one thousand dollars a day, and I never spent that twenty. It wouldn't have been right.
Five years ago, the doctor and I divorced. Eventually, I married a man - another doctor - and moved from Wilmington, Delaware to affluent Wallingford, Pennsylvania with my two children. My husband has three children also, and our blended family of five teenagers took some getting used to, as did figuring out where to shop, where to drop off my dry cleaning, and which post office had the shorter lines. For many months, I lived in a constant state of befuddlement.
For convenience sake, I bought my groceries at the Acme on MacDade Boulevard. The Acme is a grand and well-stocked grocery store with only one down-side: it is located in Chester, PA, a notorious community with ties to everything from organized crime to the September 11th attacks. Nobody goes to Chester after dark unless they have to, and the only people who have to are either residents or crack addicts.
One day, I left my wallet in the shopping cart. Distracted by the task of buying milk, juice, and bread for The Brady Bunch, I simply walked off and left it lying in the front bin, where you stash toddlers and other things that get smushed easily. For the rest of the day, my wallet didn't enter my cluttered mind.
At eight o'clock that evening, a woman called our home. "Is this Lynne Thom?" she asked, pronouncing it Tom, as everyone else in the world does. Telemarketer, I decided. "Yes," I responded coldly, ready to break the connection. "I have your wallet," she said. "My son found it in the parking lot at the Acme. I don't know how much money you had in it, but that's all gone. But there's a whole mess of credit cards and stuff here; it was strung all over the parking lot. You can come over and pick it up. I'll tell you how to get to my house."
I was in a trance, dazed by the fact that I had not even realized my error for five full hours. As it turned out, it had taken the woman most of those five hours to track me down. My driver's license was still a Delaware one, and it identified me by my maiden name. The woman had spent the evening--of her birthday-- looking for me, so that she could return my belongings.
I got lost repeatedly, trying to find her row-house. Finally, a neighborhood kid flagged me down. "Somebody say some white lady gonna be drivin' around here. They say look out for her," the boy said. He told me how to find the place I was looking for, and the woman met me outside, holding a plastic shopping bag filled with all the various cards that define my life.
The twenty was gone, of course, as was the five given to me by my late grandfather. I deeply mourned the loss of the five, but I did not even remember the twenty until many months later, when I dreamed about that long-ago day in front of the Payne Whitney gymnasium with Jimmy Costanza.
When I woke up from that dream, I puzzled over what it meant. Then I thought back to a woman who had spent the evening of her birthday, teaching her son that you don't spend what doesn't belong to you. I thought about integrity.
Somebody - the person who first found my wallet in the shopping cart - spent both the twenty and the five. Somebody who really needed it, I hope. But the woman who returned the wallet is raising a son under circumstances far, far more demanding and dangerous than I grew up in, and still, she is teaching him about integrity of spirit, about honesty, about the simple beauty of doing the right thing.
She could have celebrated her birthday with a spending spree, running my cards up to their limits. She could have simply thrown the whole mess in the trash. But she didn't. She didn't. And someday, when her son goes out into the world, maybe even off to Yale, he will know that it doesn't matter if you grow up in a place where things fall off the backs of trucks. It doesn't matter if the apartment next-door is a crack-house and you can only afford one pair of shoes. You should never spend what you didn't earn.
It just isn't right.
© Lynne Thom
Lynne Thom received her doctorate in Human Genetics from Yale in 1983. She works with and writes about people who have intellectual disabilities. She lives with her husband, her two children and three step-children in Wallingford, PA. She is forever indebted to the woman from Chester.
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