By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Think for a moment about your cellphone.
How many phone numbers does it have?
How many photos?
If it were lost, how long would it take you to reconstruct your life?
If it were found, how much would you pay to get it back?
That's what the voice on the phone was asking Ashton Giese.
Giese, a Defense Department analyst, had dropped his phone on 16th Street NW while walking home. Frantic, he'd dialed the cell's number. Was it too late to make a phone call? What time was it? He couldn't say! His only timekeeper was his cellphone!
Ring. Ring. Ring.
"Yeah, I got your phone," said the voice that answered. "But what's it worth to you?"
"Twenty bucks," Giese blurted out. It was all the cash he had, but he couldn't stop thinking about the 350 numbers stored on that cell. "My phone is my life," Giese says. "If I'd needed to, I would have paid a lot more."
There is, for most of us, a very exquisite and specific pleasure to returning a lost object. It's white-collar heroism -- a way to save the day without dashing into a burning building. It prompts lavish levels of gratitude. The word "saint" might be used: Saint? Naw. Well, all right, if you must call me a saint . . . A reward might be offered: Reward? Naw. I'm offended you'd even offer. I just wanted to do the right thing.
This is the unspoken agreement between losers and finders, the Good Samaritan pact that provides a flicker of hope when we misplace the pocket-size items that we rely on to navigate our days.
But some people never sign that pact. Some people exploit their roles as finders to make a quick buck. Some people are Bad Samaritans.
Jeremy Wilson-Simerman, a congressional staff assistant, left his cellphone on a Red Line Metro train and encountered his own Bad Samaritan. The phone's finder wanted a reward. Wilson-Simerman suggested $10. The finder suggested $450. Wilson-Simerman suggested the finder was crazy. He never saw his phone again.
Bad form, says Davy Rothbart, editor of Found, a magazine featuring photographs of lost objects. "It's a violation of the human code if you find something that's clearly important to someone else and you don't return it," he says.
Rothbart has been on the receiving end of that violation. A few years ago the Ann Arbor, Mich., resident left his phone in a bar. When he dialed the number, a voice cackled before hanging up. So Rothbart notified his phone company, at which point he learned that whoever found the cell had used it to call some 40 numbers. Rothbart started to dial them, one after another, using his best Threatening Guy voice. "I'd say, 'Yo! Your friend stole my phone! The police are going to come to your house unless you make him give it back!' "
Finally, Rothbart tracked his phone to a guy named Mike, who lived a few miles from his house. He drove to the address and confronted Mike, who copped to using the phone and begrudgingly gave it back.
Then Mike had a request, says Rothbart. "'He goes: 'Well, can I get a reward for finding it?' I was like, 'Dude. No.' "
But Rothbart, patron saint of found objects, the man who once tracked down the owner of an un-addressed photo album because he couldn't bear someone losing family memories, does not believe the rules of returning are black-and-white. " Really good Samaritans, if they find a wallet, they return it intact," he says. "Some people find a wallet, take the money, but return the important stuff. That's not evil."
For support of this dubious statement, ask Andrew Cohn. The Los Angeles writer was cleaning up his back yard after a party the night before when he spotted a wallet on the ground. It contained $40. "I'd just spent $500 on the party," says Cohn. "I figured the money was this girl's contribution." He removed the money but left the wallet on the ground.
"If you expect someone's going to return your wallet with all the cash, you're probably a little delusional," Cohn says. Taking the dough might not have been the most ethical course of action, he admits, but it's not a sin.
"It's a sin," says the Rev. Thomas Kalita, pastor of St. Peter's Parish in Olney. "Any time a person holds onto property that he or she knows belongs to another person without the intention of giving it right back [he] is dishonest."
It's all there in Deuteronomy 22:1-4 (not the part about cellphones, but the general concept), illustrated with those all-purpose biblical examples, farm animals. In part: "If you see your brother's ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him."
The passage does not, hopeful reader, conclude with "after demanding 50 shekels."
This biblical admonition is at the root of our current criminal code, which labels the practice extortion.
When the cellphone scenario is presented to Bruce Weinstein, who writes an ethics column for Business Week, there is a long pause.
"That's not even an ethical dilemma," he says finally, with the perturbed tone of a smart kid who was hoping for a hard question. "An ethical dilemma is a conflict between two moral values . . . like not wanting to lie versus not wanting to hurt someone's feelings. There's no real ethical argument to holding someone's cellphone for ransom."
But when you come down to it, maybe the practice of demanding payment for a found good isn't actually about ethics, or religion, or even money. It's about the way you view community. It's about the tenuous relationship between two people built around one transaction, one object. If you believe in karma, it's about the number of good deeds in your account at the Bank of Altruism, and whether you've put enough in to take one out. It's about one simple question: Do you believe in the kindness of strangers?
Psychologists say the way someone answers this question is a microcosmic view into how he or she perceives the world. You put the squeeze on someone? You probably believe that, given the opportunity, they'd put the squeeze on you. The Golden Rule of a Hard-Knock Life.
Machiavellian? Yes. Wrong? Not necessarily: Some cultures or groups of people are simply more reciprocity-oriented, says J. Philippe Rushton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who studies cultural variance. He cites Latin America as one location where payments for "favors" are expected. Rushton says people from these cultures would be more likely to request money before handing over a found wallet or phone. "They aren't criminals," he says. "They're just midway in altruism."
There was no musing on the implications of reciprocity research for Laine Glisson, once a press secretary for former senator John Breaux (D-La.) and now a senior vice president at the lobbying firm Dutko Worldwide. Glisson left her BlackBerry in the back of a cab. She tasked her assistant with securing its return. He sent an e-mail to the device; the cabbie responded and asked for $50. Seemed like a bargain! Done.
Brad Pazant has an almost philosophical take on his ransomed cellphone, which he dropped near Dupont Circle and later paid $20 to get back. "What are you going to do?" says the schoolteacher. "Once I lost my wallet and someone mailed it back with everything still inside." Having made that withdrawal from the Bank of Altruism, this time "I guess it was my turn to pay."
This troubles Joseph Ferarri, a DePaul University psychology professor who studies altruism. He fears that the United States is moving closer to the you-back-me-with-some-scratch-I'll-hand-over-your-BlackBerry culture. The transition away from smaller communities has helped us become, he says, "a 'me' society instead of a 'we' society," more interested in looking out for ourselves than our neighbors. And when we do perform good deeds, says Ferrari, modern culture teaches us to expect a reward: "Just look at reality television. You can't just lose weight anymore. There has to be a prize for it."
A recent study by the National Institutes of Health suggests that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, that acts of generosity stimulate the parts that usually respond to food and sex. Clearly, this was not a study that Andrew Cohn had read. Consider the profound ending of his wallet scheme.
A few hours after Cohn replaced the cash-emptied wallet on the grass, its owner knocked on his door. It was a girl. A really, really hot girl. She was sad to find that her cash was gone but pleased to have her credit cards and driver's license back. So pleased, in fact, that Cohn thought she might agree to go out with him.
Only one problem. He didn't have her number. And the mutual friend who did have it wouldn't pass it on. The friend's reason? "He said, 'You can't ask out a girl if you just took her money.' "
Isn't karma a kick in the head?