Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Spirit of the Season

I was a little keyed up last night and knew I would have trouble sleeping, so I took the subway into Manhattan with no plan other than to just walk around town.

Going north on Ninth Avenue I spotted a cel phone on the sidewalk. I picked it up and glanced around dumbly for its owner -- as if someone might be hiding, waiting to see who would pick it up. No one came out of the shadows.

Losing a cel phone is expensive, annoying and inconvenient. It immediately became apparent that my task now should be to return the phone to its owner. I opened up the phone; the screen was in Spanish. The owner was hispanic like me. As I continued to walk up Ninth Avenue, I called the Sprint operator to see if they might have any suggestions for me. She said she didn't have any information about the phone available to her, but if I found out what the number was -- by turning the phone off and turning it back on -- and called customer service they might be able to help me.

I ran through strategies in my head: calling people from his address book at random; getting an address from Sprint and mailing the phone to the fellow; or maybe just waiting for a call. I didn't have to think about this problem all that long: about twenty minutes after I found the phone I got a call.

At first a woman was on the line, but when I answered there was a pause, and a man came on. He was tentative. "I lost my cel phone." He spoke with a Spanish accent, but his English was fairly decent.
"Yes, I have it," I said. "Where are you?"
"59th and 10th."
"I'm at 57th and 5th. Want to meet somewhere in the middle?"
He agreed, thanked me profusely, and we hung up. I began to walk west.

While I waited for him at 57th and Broadway, I saw a young couple running across the street. I thought maybe it was them: they were attractive and affluent-looking. They looked like they were in a hurry -- was it so that I wouldn't have to wait long? They looked happy -- was it because they had been reprieved of a misfortune? But they rushed past me.

A few minutes later I got a call -- he was at 57th and 7th. I told him to stay there and I'd walk the short block over. It turns out it was the couple that had walked by before.

They both beamed at me and thanked me. I thought of speaking in Spanish to them but decided not to. The fellow took a folded twenty and stuffed it in my hand. "Buy yourself a beer." I waved him off. "No, I mean it," he insisted. "Buy yourself a beer!" He stuffed the bill in my jacket pocket. I acquiesced.

After saying goodbye to them, however, I felt a little less good about the experience than I had a couple of minutes earlier. I thought I was performing an act of kindness to a random stranger. The quid pro quo aspect put an edge of the metallic in the experience. I don't begrudge the fellow for making that gesture; I'm sure he thought he was being kind. I can even see that in certain situations I might do something similar. And also there's this: perhaps if I hadn't taken the money he would have felt a little less good about the episode instead of me.

I tell you this story because it has two morals: a light one and a dark one. The light moral is that it truly is better to give than to receive. The dark moral follows inexorably: there are situations where altruism becomes a zero sum game, and even kindness becomes an opportunity for aggression. Don't let the other bastard out-nice you.

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