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Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: `FREE STUFF' THAT NEEDS TO GO BACK

Several months ago, as I was descending the steps of a busy subway station, I saw an oversized change purse on the stairs. I picked it up.

The change purse contained a bank card, a credit card, a university identification card, a library card from a small town, some folding money, a handful of other cards and, well, change. I took a quick glance around the station, but saw no one resembling the photo on the university card. Whoever she was, she was long gone.

I tried e-mailing her at her college address, but the e-mail bounced back. I then called directory assistance and asked for a listing for her last name in her small town. Only one number came up, so I tried it. Busy signal. A few hours later, I tried again. Still busy.

The incident came to mind recently when I received an e-mail from a reader in Columbus, Ohio. While in the parking lot of a home-improvement center a few weeks ago, he discovered a bag in a shopping cart. Inside were some recent purchases from the store -- nothing too expensive, only a few garage hooks and an outlet strip.

"My first reaction was, `Goody, free stuff,"' he writes. Then, after placing the bag in his car for safekeeping, he went to the service desk to explain what he had found. The clerk told him that such things happen frequently. Sometimes the purchaser returns for the goods, sometimes not.

My reader figured that, if he left the goods at the service desk, chances were that they would be returned to the shelf within 48 hours if no one claimed them. So he left his telephone number with the clerk and asked him to give the number to anyone calling or returning to claim the goods.

"I figured, if anyone called and could give me a reasonable guess at what was in the bag, we could make arrangements to get the merchandise to its rightful owner," he writes. "I guess I did the right thing."

I might have simply left the goods with the store, but my reader's effort to get the stuff to its rightful owner, rather than keep it for himself, was indeed the right thing to do. Of course, he's now taken responsibility for storing a bag in his house in hope that someone will claim it.

When I found the change purse in the subway, I wasn't stuck with it for long. I eventually reached the owner -- her younger sister had been tying up the phone, she said -- and we made arrangements for me to return the purse to her at the subway station the following morning.

It's often simpler to return something yourself when a name happens to be attached to the goods. My reader went the extra mile by trying to return goods that he knew didn't belong to him, even when the absence of a name made things more complicated. Well done!

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

5 comments:

Phil Clutts said...

Jeffrey,

I’m not so sure about this one. The guy’s motivations are not entirely pure. By his own admission he is hoping for “free stuff,” but he did make an effort to do the right thing. However, what happens after a period of time – apparently arbitrarily determined by him (a week? two months?) – when nobody claims the bag? Does he consider the items rightfully his then?

Sure, if I found a $5 bill on the sidewalk, I am not going to move heaven and earth to find its rightful owner, but in the case of your reader, I would say that the home-improvement center has more “dibs” on the bag’s contents than he does.

I say this mostly because we all know that merchants are frequent victims of shoplifters. We all pay the price for that. Here’s a chance for the store to make a tiny dent in their shoplifting losses by turning a customer’s unfortunate loss into a resale. Maybe they could even put items like that on sale at cost, so that they can’t be accused of profiteering, greed, whatever.

My inclination would be to return the bag to the store after a week or so. His telephone number on the duty clerk’s desk was probably lost within that timeframe anyway, especially for such an inconsequential purchase. Do you think the reader would have acted any differently if it had been a small bag, but one with contents of considerably more value?

Carroll Straus said...

I think there is a HUGE difference between a purse with things in it that someone needs and some stuff from a store. By law, a finder has no obligation to return found items, but I know how much I appreciated it when my purse was returned to me -- although the finder had helped himself to my Palm Pilot.

Earlier the contents of my wallet were returned-- absent the wallet itself and its (then important) calculator.

Most recently my purse was retuned to me, with all the stuff I really needed in it-- like my car keys, and all the rest. BUT--no money. (Luckily I carry very little cash.) In each case the person who made my life easier by returning my credit cards, ID etc. helped themselves to whatever they felt they should be entitled to.

I still don’t now what to think-- except that if I ever return something to its owned I will NOT pay myself for it!

BTW-- the one time something was returned to me with nothing missing I sent flowers to the returners.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey,

Years ago when I lived in Long Beach, CA, I found a wallet with a lot of money and ID in it while riding my bicycle. I took it home and made attempt after attempt to locate the owner, even stopping at the address on the driver's license, but that person either just disappeared or never seems to have existed in the first place.

The people in the house where I stopped said they'd been there for a few years and had never heard or seen the person on the driver's license and no idea who it was. So I left the wallet with LBPD and they said they'd check their computer systems and locate the owner.

A few months later LBPD called, said they were unable to locate the owner and that the money in the wallet was mine. Having an odd feeling about ending up with the money in a wallet belonging to a person who seems to have just disappeared, I told them to put it into their police benevolent fund.

Since then I've found several purses while riding my motorcycle (women seem to like putting them on top of their cars before driving off), but was always able to locate their owners and returned them promptly. Always refusing a reward, but unable to refrain from making jokes about items I supposedly "found" in the purses:

"Yes, Mrs. (name), I threw out the motel keys I found in the purse so your husband wouldn't find them."

It's not easy being a GOOD Samaritan.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

In regards to a recent article you wrote I thought I would like to warn your readers about an experience I had returning a lost women's purse. I found a purse in the park with pictures of children and a check book. I thought the loser would appreciate getting it back so I telephoned her and she said she would be over right away. Well she showed up with the police in tow !I I was so glad I had a witness with me when I found it. Next time I'll let it lay there or call the police myself. It seems the purse in question had been stolen in a Movie theater. I enjoy reading your column as I always try to do the right thing. No Good deed goes unpunished. Elaine Hughes, Santa Ana, CA

Anonymous said...

Hello,

I’m not sure why the home-improvement shopper should get a “well-done” for playing the odds that he would get to keep the items in the bag he found. It’s almost assured that the patron who lost the items would return to the store within 48 hours if they were concerned. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to figure out where they left their purchase. Your reader just wanted to ease his own guilt by leaving his name to pretend he really cared.

A similar story made a better lasting impression on me. Over 30 years ago, my younger brother found a $20 bill in the San Antonio Airport. My mother wanted to teach him that it was important to see if someone came forward as having lost the money. They took it to the airport police office. There, the officer told my brother that they would hold the money for 30 days to see if anyone claimed it. If no one did, they would mail it to him. Imagine my family’s surprise when a little over 30 days later the EXACT bill came in the mail to my brother.

Recently, I heard of one of my son’s friends finding $100 on a sidewalk along a busy street near our house. The boy eagerly claimed the money and put it in his pocket. I took the time to explain to my son that many of the people who would walk that sidewalk are immigrants waiting for the bus, and that $100 would mean far more to them than to his friend. I told him that I hoped if he ever found a large amount of money that he might consider putting a sign up that said something like “valuable object found, call xxx-xxxx to claim.” I think I’d write it in English and Spanish too. Maybe in the long run, no one would claim the $100, but maybe that was a family’s food money for the month.

It’s all in your intentions.

Carol Bobke
Mission Viejo, CA