I was supposed to meet my wife at our neighborhood coffeehouse, but over the phone it sounded as if she was at a funeral parlor. Her credit-card case had gone missing.
There had been a pistarckle with the cabbie who brought her to the rendezvous. The rise of phone-a-cars has made rude cabbies almost a thing of the past; the pressure of competition makes them models of congeniality, doing U-turns on avenues in order to nab a fare. This cabbie, however, was a holdover from the bad old days. Pay with credit card, he insisted. Your machine does not work, my wife told him. Pay with credit card! Your machine does not work . . . Eventually my wife did what one should have done at first but realizes only in the spirit of the staircase and gave the man ignorant of his own equipment cash. But, after she and he had parted ways and she came to examine her purse more collectedly, she saw that her credit-card case was not there.
My wife and I are still plastic people, caught between the past of bills and coins (coins with some intrinsic value, no less: remember silver half dollars?) and the future of smartphone scanning. Our wallets swell with the cards that get us through the day, or we carry special cases to hold them. In addition to credit cards there may be: the driver’s license (also now the sitter’s license — you need one to pass by the Cerberus who allows you to sit in an airplane); the gym card (how else will we exercise? thoughts are heavy, but not weight-bearing); the bank card (necessary for getting those still-necessary freshets of bills, though not of course coins); other plastic stuff. Add them all up, there can be more of them than in a hand of seven-card stud. When they are suddenly lost, you can look forward to an afternoon of calling the companies that issued them to stipulate that the living-room set bought suddenly in eastern Pennsylvania was not actually bought by you.
When I arrived at the coffeehouse I did the expected things, useless but calming. Are you sure it isn’t in your purse? Can I look too? Once the credit-card case’s non-thereness was established, my wife came up with a useful thing, a plan: She would wait until the following morning to make the round of phone calls, in case someone should find her case and contact her.
The newspapers regularly run stories about cabbies who have retrieved and returned mislaid keepsakes, authors’ manuscripts, musicians’ Stradivarii. My wife’s cabbie did not seem like the man to turn patron saint of lost things. But her instinct to wait turned out to be correct. That evening she got a call from a woman who lived downtown, who had found her card case lying on the sidewalk.
My wife’s phone number is not on any of her cards, but matching a name to a number (and blood type, and criminal history) is child’s play these days. She returned the call; a time frame was agreed on. Together we went to my wife’s savior’s address (only minutes away from our apartment building, though it was on a block I don’t remember ever having walked). My wife, as all the saved should do, had brought a token of thanks: a bouquet. Picking it had been a matter of discrimination. Tulips: boring. Dyed flowers: please! She settled on saffron roses. Credit-card case, flowers, and kind words were exchanged.
Up in the country the following weekend, we left the bus that brought us from the city. A holiday loomed, several buses had arrived at the station at once, passengers waited in long lines to embark on their vacations. My wife went ahead to get a table in the small bus-station coffeehouse — how would we live without that beverage? — while I grabbed our bags from the bus’s hold. We performed our afternoon-of-arrival routine: nibbled a late breakfast, shopped, had a more substantial lunch; drove over the ridge, shopped again at the U-Pick, arrived at our country home at last. There was an email: One of the bags I had taken belonged to someone else. The woman now in possession of ours was in a bus station farther up the line.
My mistake: The bags were identical, but in my haste I had not looked for the bright red ribbon that my wife had attached to ours to prevent just such switches from occurring. My responsibility: After a quick look at the map (I still have hard-copy road atlases — me, and Chingachgook), I drove to the other bus station to set all in order.
It is a familiar drive. It is a drive through history: My destination city was briefly the capital of the state during the Revolution, until the British burned it; another town the road bisects has a Dutch graveyard and a street of stone houses, including one where George Washington slept. Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman must have traveled it many a time. I ticked off the landmarks as I passed them: the U-Pick; the roller rink; the deserted house, built of fieldstone, burned out by a bad chimney; the farm stand that used to display a pumpkin cannon at this time of year, vacant now for the last several. As I approached my target, a cat’s cradle of turnoffs, then the second bus station. I phoned the woman I was to meet; she was waiting inside. We traded bags, and I returned in the gloaming the way I had come.
What I drew from this were three old saws, all partly true: City dwellers are often decent folk, whatever our reputation. And, when you receive a good deed, exert yourself for the next person down the line.
And, keep an eye on your possessions. Decency and exertion are nice, but don’t count on them.