Inverted Selfishness: Thank You, New York, For Tucking In My Tag

I know it seems like a late start, but I was 22 my first time. Like many women in New York, I lost it in the back of a cab. Unlike many-I got it back the next day.

A man showed up at the address printed on my first business card and asked the receptionist if anyone had lost a wallet. These days, I barely remember to take business cards with me when I leave the house. Then, I was so thrilled by their shape and texture and significance, I’d carry no less than 10. I offered to pay the man, but he refused; he mumbled something about being in the neighborhood and took the elevator out of sight. Of course, after he left I discovered that he’d already paid himself $17 and a monthly MetroCard.

The important stuff, however-the wallet itself, the credit cards, the all-important driver’s license-was all there and untouched. Which might explain why, two years later, when I left my wallet in a cab again, I made none of the usual motions to erase myself. I canceled no accounts, changed no codes and threw away no keys. Blessed with an often-inconvenient mix of faith and practicality, I decided to give my hunch a week before I called Visa. A game of financial roulette, if you will. And on the seventh day, my wallet showed up in my mailbox. And it was good. Even the cash was still inside. (The bad news was that my lost-wallet inflation rate had apparently gone up only $1 in two years.)

This stuff happens to me all the time. It’s not that I think I’m particularly lucky; I’m not. On some level, I’m conscious that it’s a numbers game. For example, everyone I know who grew up a true New York City kid has been mugged at least twice. Logical. The other night, I thought I felt someone sneaking up on me and I knew my time had come. I just knew it. I felt a hand tug at my arm and turned, wide-eyed, to see a very tall woman who said, “Sorry, but …” and then tucked the label on my collar back inside my shirt. I laughed, touching where the tag had been, and thanked her. It was then I decided the city is looking out for me. As they say, “Now more than ever.” And perhaps that’s it-perhaps it’s a post-post-post-9/11 humanity that’s trickled down to everyday courtesies like not stealing other people’s wallets. Perhaps it’s simply that niceness has always been New York’s best-kept secret, constructed and maintained to keep the tourists out. Sort of like how it really doesn’t rain very much in Seattle.

In all likelihood, it’s not even as romantic as a shared front, but rather a basic sympathy for our fellow urban dwellers. It’s inverted “do unto others” selfishness. I probably wouldn’t leap in front of a cross-town bus for anyone only because I wouldn’t expect someone to do that for me. But I would expect them to tell me that my fly is undone and take a certain amount of pride in informing others of this myself. In the past five years alone, I have left my wallet in a cab an astonishing-nay, impressive-6.7 times. (The .7 is for all the times I would have gone ID-less into a bar had someone not gotten out of the back seat after me and said, “Forget something?”) With the exception of that first $17 idiot’s fee, my wallet gets returned to me every time. Every. Single. Time.

Do I think I am jinxing this streak by coming out in the open with it in this manner? That I am courting a trip to the Herald Square D.M.V.? I did consider that. I also figured this would be the ultimate test of my theory that it’s not me, not just my luck, but something more organic about the way the city works.

I was absent-mindedly picking at my nails and pondering all of this on the subway platform when a small Korean woman came out from behind the median map barrier and smacked my arm down. “Slun!” She shook her head and held my fingertips in a bunch. “No bite!” People turned to look. Apparently my mother had found a way to morph into this meticulous woman who, in reality, had painted my nails three weeks prior at a local salon. After that, the question was no longer whether the city was looking out for me, but whether it was butting in. I like the barely-there idea of a guardian angel. I could do without the baby-sitting police. When does neighborliness become meddling? It’s got to rain in Seattle eventually.

With few exceptions, our actual neighbors who share our addresses are strangers as well. Recently, I came home to a note pasted on my door with duct tape. Apparently I had been throwing my trash bags in the incorrect bucket outside my brownstone, thus leading to some bad bucket overflow. This deviant behavior had to stop. I felt the note was on the brusque side, but perhaps that was just the duct tape talking. Shaking it off, I plucked said note from my door and threw it out in the kitchen. One minute passed before something occurred to me, and then I flung open my kitchen cabinet, reread the Sharpie scrawl and realized: This guy was going through my trash. How else could he know it was me? Yes, I was creeped out. Yes, I now pulp my receipts and double-knot my trash bags. But the thing is, in his own inadvertently selfish way, he meant well. The man didn’t want trash outside his house. And his casa is my casa.

In the end, it is rare that our random acts of kindness do not achieve their intended effect. It doesn’t take much more than those magic words “Hey, you’ve got toilet paper stuck to your shoe!” to make me fall in love with this place again. Maybe I’m easy. Maybe it’s all about inverted selfishness. That Cuticle Cop was well intentioned, but because I would never do what she did, it pissed me off. I’m just not a good enough person to smack a stranger.

Thus, as I stood there waiting for my train, I felt my understanding and empathy for my fellow New Yorkers swell like a big glowing orb of Care Bears and butterfly kisses. I said the absent-minded professor’s prayer of gratitude for every glorious time a wallet-shaped envelope appeared in my mailbox. I smiled at people holding my same subway pole, and they smiled back. Because this is the beauty of strangers: We’re all just trying to do our best to help each other out, motivated not by karma or luck but by a natural instinct to aid the greater whole, one stray clothing tag at a time.

Except for the old guy on the corner of 13th and Seventh two nights ago who saw me smoking a cigarette and told me it would kill me. Asshole.