Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Meditation On Wallets, Lost Or Otherwise

I did something uncharacteristically honest and selfless yesterday. Instead of bumping someone off or shoplifting the latest crime novel from my local bookstore, I returned a man's wallet. I found it in a ground floor men's room in the building where I toil at my ignominious day job. There it was, worn, leathery and very fatly stuffed, perched on the industrial-sized toilet paper dispenser in the largest of the stalls. At first I simply stared at it. After all, I had my own business to take care of. As I sat there, I pondered what to do. Should I leave it there? Maybe the dude who lost it would remember where it was and come back for it. Or maybe somebody else would find it and (I assume) turn it in - or steal it. I didn't really care. At least not initially. I didn't want to touch it - for two reasons. One, if I emerged from the men's room with this alien wallet in hand, someone - perhaps even its owner - might see me, and I would be accused of stealing it before I even had the chance to return it. Two, handling anything some other guy left in a men's room stall could be very unsanitary - for its owner as well as for me. Having seen Contagion the night before at the local Showcase Cinema, I was feeling a little queasy about the possibilities out there for, well, contagion. The leathery skin of that wallet did not look healthy.

Eventually, I did the "right" thing. Sort of. As soon as I was done with my business - but before I washed my hands (after all, I need to retain some portion of sociopathic mischief in everything I do) - I lifted the wallet with pincered fingers. I extracted something from it. No - not money! I pulled out the dude's ID card to see who he was. Ah, a name to go with the lost article! Would I steal his identity? No. Could I have stolen his identity? Interesting thought, but no - probably not easily. After I washed my hands, I conveyed this well-worn and somewhat turd-like locus of a man's identity to the nearest authority - but not before searching the name plates on every office door to see if the dude worked nearby. Somewhat to my relief, he did not.

Oddly, I did not consider theft - or any other sort of crime. Am I losing my touch? Have I gone timid? Or has Empathy insinuated herself, like the womanly entity she is, into the bedroom of my soul?

When I was very young and, like many a city boy, did not yet possess a driver's license, I carried no identification on me. Just some cash, and not always that. I bar-hopped, caroused, got into fights, puts the moves on girls, darted in and out amongst cars driven by drunken persons, and pursued all manner of hair-raising capers, all without an ID. Now I obey the laws religiously (mostly), and carry innumerable small labels on myself as though I expect to drop dead or be run over any moment. And it is not just death I fear. It is the police, the concierges of corporate towers, even the T.S.A. at my hometown MBTA station - they, too, would ream my ass if I ever attempted to pass before them ID-less. It sometimes seems to me that our ability to move freely through life and do that American thing of constantly reinventing ourselves has been eroded by carrying around too much identification. If anyone who wants to can always pin me down as exactly who or what I currently am, how can I aspire to become anything else?

I've lost wallets myself, and I know it feels. Believe me! You feel like you've lost your license to exist. I lost my wallet once when I was a tourist in Denmark, but someone found it and brought it to the police station. (The Vikings, too, have faded into civility.) I lost it another time when a hooker picked my pocket in Times Square. I even thought I'd lost it once when I had to go pick up my in-laws at South Station, and had stopped into a bar beforehand to steady my nerves. I ended up cancelling my credit card, only to find out a day or two later that I had, in my distraction, left it in my overcoat when I brought my in-laws home.

Oh, yes. Wallets. ID's. The insidious conflation of money with identity that wallets enable. What a thing it would be to be able to go without wallets! If I were run over, I might end up as a John Doe in the city morgue. Even if I survived, no doctor would treat me because I would have no health benefits card. But on the other hand, to go without a wallet might render me unmuggable. Should I choose to commit a crime myself, it wouldn't exactly make me unarrestable - but it would make it nearly impossible for the cops to find me again if I escaped. Going wallet-less wouldn't be as drastic as going naked, but who knows what kinds of freedom it could give us and what thrills it might induce?

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