I’d walked to the store in the rain, the last ten dollars from my 9/10/11 wedding earnings in my pocket, the other pocket full of change just in case. Some juicy bits of story were piped into my ears via ipod, and I’d added a couple of extra loops to the walk, partly because I was cold and wanted to warm up, and partly because I wanted the extra distance. I’d brought a plastic grocery bag; it was sticking out of the pocket of my bright red oversized hooded sweatshirt.
Sweet potatoes, and maybe some pecans. I’d check the prices when I got there; see if it was worth my while to bother buying them at the small town grocery store, or if I should just wait until tomorrow when we do the errands we always do on the weekend when Dan’s home with the car. The $1.50/pound honeycrisps were too tempting to pass up; two of those found their way into my basket. I grabbed three sweet potatoes that looked about the right size and shape for what I needed, and looked at the holiday baking displays but decided $9 was too much to pay for twelve ounces of pecans. Mozzarella, I remembered, and made my way around the other side of the store, where I compared prices and decided to buy the ungrated cheese for $3 rather than the grated stuff in a bag for $3.50. I passed by the potato chips, even though my favorite ones were on sale, stopped the audiobook, removed the earbuds.
I got in line behind a guy with 3/4 sleeve tattoos, buying gatorade and candy and bottled water and dinner fixings, pushing a cart with what looked like a baby around 18 months to two years old. The baby grabbed at a display of slim jims, and the tattooed man pushed his son’s hand aside, distracting him with an offering of what to me looked like a baby choker candy. I flashed back to the time when I was eight and my parents had this plastic tube with a tilted bottom, meant to demonstrate what could choke a baby or toddler and what was safe to give them. Not my business, I told myself. Not my business what someone else gives their kid.
“It’s sugarless,” the guy told the cashier, “he’s allergic to sugar.” “What a shame,” she told him. “He’s allergic to all kinds of stuff,” the man continued. “We had him down at UCSF for a week doing tests, and they finally determined he was allergic to sugar, wheat, just about anything a little kid likes to eat.” They continued to chat about his son’s allergies, while the cashier bagged his purchases and the little boy begged for another sugarless candy.
It was my turn, so I pulled out the bag I’d brought and the sweet potatoes, apples, and mozzarella made it into my bag. I handed the cashier one of the fives and some of the change from my pocket; under $7 wasn’t bad for everything I’d bought. Not bad for that store, anyway. I walked toward the exit, fumbling in my pocket a bit to restart my audio book. Then, I realized my other five dollar bill wasn’t there.
The last five dollar from all that work I’d done – gone. I turned on my heel, pressed pause on the ipod, and headed back into the store to the line where I’d checked out. “Did anyone find a five dollar bill? I dropped one somewhere,” I told the cashier. “Nope, haven’t seen it,” she said. I worked my way quickly but methodically through the store, retracing my steps, but found nothing on the floor save an old, crumpled receipt. My heart sank. Five dollars isn’t an insignificant amount of money to lose, for me, at this point in my life. The cashier must have gone on a break, because I saw her in a different part of the store on my way out. “I didn’t find it,” I told her. “Check at the service desk,” she said. “Maybe someone turned it in.”
Would someone really have turned in a found five dollar bill? It’s not a lot of money, not like a $20. But it’s not as small as a dollar, or change. Lots of people would probably just pocket it, I thought, though if I found a $5 in a grocery store I’d certainly turn it in. A tiny seed of hope began to grow in my chest. The girl behind the customer service desk, where they also sell the cigarettes and rent the videos, turned to me from talking to her coworker and asked if she could help me. “Did anyone turn in a five dollar bill?” I asked. “I dropped one.”
A big grin cracked her face. “Yes, as a matter of fact, we had one turned in just a few minutes ago,” she replied. A rush of relief flooded over me. I silently thanked whoever that had been, whoever had been honest enough or not needed the $5 more than I did, or maybe they did but weren’t the sort of person to pocket it. $5 doesn’t seem like a lot, but to me it was. It was the last money I’d earned in months, the last cash in my pocket until Dan came home for the weekend and I could use the ATM card again. $5 could feed me for a couple of meals, if necessary.
I remembered the time I was walking down the street in Berkeley, not long after I’d been hired at what I thought was my dream job. I had five dollars in my pocket and one of the regular beggars, the blind one who used the sidewalk as his toilet, asked me for change. I gave him the five and remembered how important that was to me, that I could spare a whole five dollars for the first time in my life. And here I was, more than ten years later, grateful that some stranger in the grocery store had done something similar for me. Funny how roles can reverse.