To Find City’s Heart, Lose Your Wallet-I Did Five Times

For a long time I’ve wondered what would happen if I lost my wallet in the city-would I get it back?-and I finally did it, five times, on Aug. 12. The Republicans gave me the excuse: What better time to test the response of New Yorkers to misfortune? More personally, I’ve had an ongoing argument with my grandmother, a little one-sided now that she’s gone, about how much to trust people. You’re naïve, she used to say, you have too much faith in humanity, people are miserable-and she held the Depression and World War II over me. Well, now we’re involved in another sort of world war (those Republicans again); still, I haven’t come around to her way of thinking, though, yes, I still hear her voice.

I bought four cloth Velcro-closed wallets to add to my own and got a copy shop to forge a bunch of my ID’s and laminate them. Library cards from archives around the world, frequent-flyer memberships, a dry cleaner’s ticket and other cards: the Authors Guild, the Friendly Islands Bookshop and New York Public Library’s manuscripts division. I threw a credit card or two in as well, but not my driver’s license. At this point, it was a lark. I went to the green box in the living room to find a heap of my wedding photos from 1991, still in their yellow photo-shop envelopes; I cut out people who had drifted out of my life to put in the plastic sleeves. A good-looking couple dancing. (They have since split up.) A prognathous relation or two, and some others I didn’t recognize. I put $30 in each wallet along with a bunch of foreign currency to give the thing more verisimilitude, taped a sticker inside to say who to call if found and set out for 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard. I’d go from one end of the island to the other.

I got a cab going east. The driver was a dark-skinned man; his son was in the front seat, and when he said goodbye to the boy and dropped him at a busy corner, it stopped being a lark. What was I doing to this man’s life? With a casual motion, I pushed wallet No. 1 into a far corner of the seat and hopped out at Park, heading east in a hurry. It was 1:26. I turned onto Lexington and thought to bury myself in the crowd when my telephone rang. It was 1:29 p.m.

A woman said my name twice, and when I said that was me, she said that she had found my wallet in a cab.

“I’m going to Mount Sinai,” she said.

“I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Do you mind leaving it at the front desk?”

“O.K.,” she said affably.

I suddenly wanted to avoid meeting her at the hospital and explaining that it was an experiment-not when she was probably involved in some kind of serious health matter.

I took a cab to 96th and Park, dropping wallet No. 2 in the same spot on the back seat, then got out and walked to Mount Sinai. Flocks of people moved in and out of the wide revolving doors; a girl balanced a lime-green parasol on her shoulder. I passed through the big, cool atrium of the hospital and stopped at several desks without finding my wallet. My phone rang again. She said her name was Stephanie; the guard was getting off and she didn’t want to leave it with him. She was going to bring it up to her mother’s room in Klingenstein Pavilion.

“Wait, I’m coming,” I said, and as I ran to the canopy on Fifth, she beamed me in on the phone. “I’m inside-I see you standing there.”

Stephanie Firdman was a good-looking blonde in her 40′s with a sweet smile. I held out my hands apologetically.

“I’m sorry, I have to tell you-this is an experiment. I’m losing five wallets today and writing about it.”

She didn’t get angry. “Huh. Will you make me famous?”

“You and me both,” I promised.

A man sitting next to her started to laugh. It was her brother Robert. He and Stephanie were visiting their mother, who had cancer and had just undergone an operation. They were in a hurry. In the cab, Robert had said to just give the wallet to the driver, but Stephanie had felt more responsible. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot in here,” she mused, but when she started to look at the money, her 10-year-old daughter Jessica said, “That’s rude!” and Robert said, “Don’t count the money.” So she didn’t.

“Let me give you a reward,” I said.

Stephanie said, “No, that’s O.K.”

I hailed a cab on Fifth Avenue, and we headed south past the Met and more of the August tourists. The traffic got worse in the 60′s, an army of cabs. We passed the Pierre and the big clock, and then a man went by on a bicycle trishaw. He wore a purple satiny shirt and shorts of the same color and a floral tie as he stood earnestly on the pedals. It was stirring to see someone trying so very hard, and I kicked wallet No. 3 on to the floor, out of anyone’s sight, and got out across from the Plaza.

I threaded my way past a man drawing caricatures of tourists and a large white horse tended by a man with thinning blond hair when my phone rang again.

Another woman’s voice: “I found your wallet,” she said.

“Oh gosh, can I come get it?” I said.

She was called Miriam and had a New York wise air. “You must lose it all the time-there’s that note inside.”

“I have to admit it isn’t the first time,” I said. “I’m going to have to give you a reward.”

“No, give something to someone on the street who needs it,” she said.

Miriam gave me an address on East Ninth Street, and I walked south to the subway feeling very proud of myself. I’d stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plum. I’d dropped three wallets inside of 43 minutes and already gotten two calls.

I announced myself to Miriam’s doorman and expected to be handed the wallet, but he sent me up to her place, and Miriam Steinberg called out to me down the hall as I came out of the elevator. “Take a right and than a left.” She seemed glamorous, tall with dark hair and an efficient New York air, a nice dark dress. A blond girl of about 20 in gym shorts stood in the hallway.

“My daughter said, ‘This guy must lose his wallet a lot,’” Miriam said.

“I have to tell you, I’m losing five wallets today-I’m writing about it,” I said.

“Why don’t you chain it to your backpack?” Miriam said.

Her daughter Samantha got the point before she did. She was in stitches, juking her shoulders. Then Miriam nodded knowingly. She told me that she had just left a bris for Ben Isay (son of Josh, the Democratic consultant, and Cathie of ABC News) when she got my cab at 96th and Park. Her doorman had opened the door for her and said, “Miriam-your wallet.” “That’s not mine,” she said, but she took it readily. Miriam has lost too many telephones, papers and purses over the years not to appreciate the experience and, calling it karma, phoned me when she got upstairs. Then told the doorman to send the stranger up-what the hell, she thought.

It was wallet No. 2, and I left Miriam with a feeling of abundance. Within an hour of losing three wallets, two had come back to me with all the money inside, and the Samaritans had refused to accept a reward. When did I ever show such abundance to the world? Walking south in a haze, I packed the contents of the two returned wallets into the two I hadn’t yet dropped, doubling the money and adding more wedding photos to Nos. 4 and 5. I ducked into Washington Square Park, past a couple kissing under a tree and a languid woman smoking a cigarette and speaking into a cell phone. ” Exactly ,” she said, ” exactly . Exactly .” It seemed to me that you used to be able to identify people by their accents, but no longer; New York assimilates everything.

The whole park seemed to anticipate my next wallet, so I took a downtown bus on Broadway, but again everyone seemed to be looking at me, waiting to reach out to me. I got off at Houston Street and stood guiltily at a mailbox, paralyzed. A woman walked by in a seersucker skirt and a pink blouse with sauntering stylish bravery, prepared to stop me from doing what I was doing, and I realized I’d have to stick with cabs, do the dirty work unseen.

This driver had a purple turban and a monosyllabic manner. “Washington Square Park,” I said. He took a right on LaGuardia and headed north, punching through traffic. When the car in front of us stopped behind a double-parked car, Purple Turban swung into the oncoming lane and passed them both in an instant. He was in that panicky mood so many drivers get into, and I spun wallet No. 4 into the corner of the seat and hopped out on the south side of the Park and walked over to MacDougal.

My mood changed as I went south. It was after 3, and more than an hour since I’d gotten the second call. I was now out two wallets, and Stephanie and Miriam had to be kind flukes. The real life of the souk-city surged around me, falafel joints and tattoo parlors and long-running shows with names I didn’t recognize in grubby little theaters and people with cell phones chanting languages I couldn’t place. New York could make you feel like a real loser, and that was me. Stephanie and Miriam had done what I would have done, but we were just lucky. I deserved to lose all my wallets.

I got a cab and said, “World Financial Center.” The man was from the subcontinent and had a stubbly gray beard, late 40′s. He got on to West Street and sped south past the ventilators of the Holland Tunnel. I studied their curious shapes above the water. New York was an accumulation of stupendous achievements and disasters. The driver slowed and asked me a couple of times where I wanted to go. I had no idea and said, “Here’s fine.” He took the right into Vesey Street. Two black people in business suits moved forward as he stopped and stood at a respectful distance as I paid up: an important-seeming woman in gray with an indifferent air, a mild, bespectacled man in charcoal. I kicked the wallet onto the floor out of sight and walked quickly away, east.

Oh, boy. I hadn’t planned it, though I should have known I’d land here: It was the World Trade Center lot, the unbandaged hole. I thought of the one person whose name I knew personally, but my grandmother would hold every other death over me. This is what people did. I wasn’t tough enough. The idea of throwing out wallets was entitled and flaky and tied into my other idiotic beliefs in humankind. The world had failed to cure me despite considerable evidence against my way of thinking, and so what did that make me? A fool.

I kept going east. I was done with all my wallets, I could go home now. Two guys strode by in business costume, jacketless, busy, and I decided to go into J&R Computer World to look at P.D.A.’s. Two salesmen weren’t helping people, evidently sick of tourists: “So I told the asshole, ‘Fine then, go over there.’” My grandmother had had a tough life, five husbands and earning a law or business degree during the Depression years. I’d ended up living with her on the Lower East Side. I’d go for walks and tell her about visiting her birthplace on Cherry Street, or finding the place where her brother Walter had died, crushed by a wagon wheel. I hefted an I.B.M. Thinkpad, checking the weight, when my cell phone rang. I ducked out onto Broadway.

It was a young woman’s voice, a soft, unplaceable accent. Steffi, she said. She was at the Maritime Hotel Merrytime, she said. She had my wallet at the front desk. “I’m coming right over,” I said, but she broke in on me.

“What color is the wallet?”

Oh, wise are you-”Black,” I said.

“O.K.,” Steffi said easily, “take your time.”

I ran for the subway at Park Place. A woman on the landing said, “Can you please help me out with some change?” and I thrust $2 at her. I came out on Eighth Avenue and ran across 16th Street. A small man in a pale blue shirt opened the glass door almost as if he were expecting me. I passed up a wide, sudden staircase into cool calm. The Maritime Hotel lobby was hushed, dark. Fifty yards away, a fire was going in a modernistic fireplace. It seemed celebratory and weird, like Brazilian Christmas.

Steffi Tuan was at the front desk: worldly and calm, detached, 26. She said that Raymond had given her the wallet, the tall guy who worked the front door. I gave her $10 and said, “May I ask where you’re from?” I didn’t get it the first time-it sounded like “Tarwon”- and she had to spell it: “It’s another country. Taiwan.”

Raymond DeQuesada was at the front door, handsome and smiling, light brown with a beaked nose, skinny as a rail. He swung the door wide in that bony, energetic, athletic Manhattan manner. I told him what I was doing, and he kept working and smiling, his eyes on his work, enjoying his work, half-oblivious to me. He said that a cab driver had come across the lobby after him and handed him the wallet. Apparently the driver had picked someone up from the Maritime earlier in the day and felt that this man was the one who had dropped the wallet. I opened the wallet and saw, per a cryptographic system in my “Please call … ” notes, that it was No. 4, the wallet I’d left in the speedy driver’s car near Washington Square. Purple Turban. Everything was still in it.

Then the phone rang again. I held up my hand and Raymond simply nodded. I gave him 10 bucks and went off down the sidewalk. The guy on the other end had a hard time with English. He was a cab driver; he had my wallet. He was getting off his shift at 5, could I come to 83rd and Third?

I ran to Eighth Avenue. An African in an off-duty cab stopped to ask me where I was going, but when I said uptown, he shook his head and kept moving. Then a second fellow slowed up right behind him in a modern van-cab. The thing was clean and new, the driver gracious. The hand of the city was cupped under me. We were a team; I was on the team whatever I did or said. If someone fell, it was no good for anyone else. The man in the purple turban had gone back to the Maritime Hotel to find me, and now this other driver called a second and third time, afraid to lose touch, offering fresh coordinates.

“I’m coming downtown.”

We agreed on 57th and Ninth, in the second call, or maybe 58th, in the third call.

I stepped out at 57th Street and walked up and down the avenue. The man with halting English called me again. “I am here,” he kept saying, but he might have been a cloud overhead. I didn’t see him, and he asked me to describe myself.

“For-ee 76!” he called out. “For-ee 76!”

It seemed to me he couldn’t pronounce “4076.” Then he said he saw me and beamed me into his cab, north of 58th: 4E76. The man with the gray stubble, who had taken me to the World Trade Center. He handed me my wallet, with everything in it. He said that a woman had handed it to him, the woman across from the World Trade Center, the woman I hadn’t trusted, in her gray suit. It was important to him to see the wallet returned to the person’s hand. I told him what I was doing and he nodded. I asked him why he had given it back. “Because my religion says, never take anything-anything-without permission. And secondly, my mom, she teaches me that.”

I gave him $20 and asked for his name, and he reached around for an ID on a placard that he held out: MD Tariquzzaman. “What’s the ‘MD’ stand for?” “Mohammed.”

I walked east on 57th Street. It was 5:14, and I performed several calculations. I had lost my first wallet at 1:26 and my last wallet at 3:30. The first caller, Stephanie, had called after two minutes, Mohammed after an hour and 18 minutes. Now four of the wallets were back in hand, and all the money too, and the wedding pictures of people I’d thought passed out of my life. New Yorkers moved past in their precise Thursday rush-hour rhythms, and I respected each and every one of them. I got a carton of figs from a peddler and ate them all and didn’t begrudge him the rotten one. I was out one wallet, No. 3, the one I’d dropped across from the Plaza, and I wrote it off forever. People do bad things-I shared that sad knowledge with my grandmother. But what a small price to pay.