I was standing at the cash register at my grocery co-op on Wednesday night, ready to pay for my bananas and graham crackers, when dread gripped me. My wallet. It was gone. And I could only have left it one place: the G9 bus, from which I had minutes earlier disembarked and which was now speeding in the dark down Rhode Island Avenue to some unknown depot.
The heart-stopping moment of realizing it was gone was quickly followed by mental math. How much time and money would it cost to replace the contents of that little black leather clutch? The credit cards, the driver’s license, the unusually large wad of cash ($110) left over from holiday travel, the preposterously expensive lipstick ($55!), all lost to the local bus system.
Two hours after I realized my clutch was gone, back at my house in Brookland, I heard a knock on the door. My husband answered while I sat in the dining room on the phone with a credit card company. “Does Jennifer live here?” I heard someone say. In her hand was my clutch, intact with not a penny missing. She left before I could even make it to the door, much less offer my gratitude for her incredibly good act.
As it happens, this woman has a remarkable track record of reuniting lost items with their owners. After I tweeted the story, I heard from her boyfriend, who identified the good citizen as Erin Ball, a 26-year-old working for a trade organization.
Unbelievably, here’s how the couple met: He left his L.L. Bean tote behind at a bar one night after playing bingo. Ball found it and tracked him down — and they’ve been dating for the past five months.
Once I figured out who she was, I called her to thank her. She said she spotted my clutch on a bus seat and asked the driver what to do. She said she didn’t get much of a response.
“I thought, ‘I guess this is in my wheelhouse now,’ ” she told me.
She calculated that going to a stranger’s house was a riskier move than leaving the wallet with the driver, but she decided to take the chance. “If I were in that situation, I would want someone to try to find me,” she said.
Ball doesn’t find her actions particularly remarkable. Despite a flood of bad things happening in the world on a “macro level,” she said, “there are a lot of micro opportunities to do good things.” She added: “It’s not hard to do small things for people.”
This one stranger responded beautifully to my small personal crisis, but she actually wasn’t the only one.
After Ball took possession of my clutch on the bus, but before she came to my house, she decided to post a picture of my driver’s license to an online forum, trying to see if anyone knew me. No sooner did she leave my doorstep than I had emails from two women whose kids go to my son’s day care and who recognized my face, both offering to help me find my missing property.
I’ve never exchanged words with those moms beyond small talk, and Lord knows they had their hands full feeding toddlers and getting them off to bed that evening. But they wanted to help.
I read that Americans are more divided than ever, but whatever people answer on a survey, that’s not how the people I encounter in my city tend to act. Yes, we cut each other off in traffic and snark at our political adversaries online. Yes, there is always one fool haranguing some poor sales clerk at Macy’s over an expired coupon. But there are five more people in line, glaring at the offending customer. Most people seem to know how to do the right thing.
Ball had gone beyond what almost anyone would have done, finding my house on a bitterly cold night, and for that I was extremely grateful.
But looking back, I’m not surprised someone had wanted to help a stranger. An undercurrent of decency runs through this town and shows up in unexpected ways.
As I pushed my son in his stroller down the block, I looked around and realized that maybe I don’t drink beers or socialize at length with all of my neighbors, but I know they’re keeping half an eye out for my baby as he grows up. Just as I am for their children. If my son knocked on almost any door, he’d find help. I hope we’re raising him to help others — and that some day, when he finds a wallet on the bus, he knows what to do.