This is the archive for May 2009. Recent posts can be found at the main blog page.
Please sit back, this is quite a long post.
This afternoon, I got into a train that was about to depart and found myself a quiet place to sit, when I noticed a wallet in the chair right next to me. I was quite sure the owner of the wallet was long gone, since this location was the final destination of that train when it arrived at this terminus station, so everyone had left the train when it arrived. Moreover, the train had been waiting there (mostly empty) for some time already.
This left me with a few options. The worst of all would be to silently pick up the wallet, take out any money and dump it into a garbage bin. People who know me immediately know I wouldn’t even consider acting in such a criminal way. Instead, I committed myself to getting the wallet returned to its owner.
So, I opened the wallet hoping to find a business card or something else containing contact details of the owner. I found an official credit-card sized identity card and some other bank and membership cards. None of the cards or other pieces of paper I found in the wallet contained any phone numbers or addresses though, so I couldn’t phone the owner or someone who might know the owner right away using my cell phone to sort things out.
The wallet also contained a valid two-way train ticket, so I figured the owner would likely live near the departure location. Thinking some more about the train routes and transfers, I also reasoned that it was very likely the owner had lost it a little less than an hour before.
Since I found an ID card, the owner’s identity could be easily established. Delivering the wallet to a police office and having them return it to the owner would have been an excellent choice at this point.
While perfectly acceptable, that would be the easy way. The boring way. No fun for me! So I decided I would try to sort it out myself. If that failed, I could always fall back to delivering the wallet at a police office. (That would take longer for sure, so the owner would likely have blocked all bank accounts and have the id card made invalid. That would be much more hassle for the owner.)
So I took the wallet home, which was in the direction of the departure location of the train ticket I found anyway, so I could only take it closer to the owner. I continued my quest from the comfort of my home, or, more specifically, from the comfort of my home where I could use my internet connection.
Unfortunately, both the owner’s first and last names were very common. The phone book did not yield any useful results: the name is way too common in the area around the departure location printed on the train ticket. I really didn’t feel like calling fifty people. A web search also returned way too much noise to be useful.
Next, I looked through some more cards, all with the same name, but eventually found one that had a completely different name on it. The particular type of card is specific for a certain age group, and it roughly matched the age of the owner of the wallet (identity cards contain the date of birth). So this name was likely the name of a friend of the owner.
This time the full name was very uncommon, so this opened up new possibilities. Using the almighty internet search engines, I quickly arrived at a guest book page on which that name was referenced. From the actual contents I inferred it was highly likely the owner of the website was a family member of the commenter.
Now this was getting me somewhere! Next step: a domain name lookup on the containing website resulted in a phone number, which I promptly called. I mentioned the name and found out the website owner was indeed a family member of the friend of the owner of the wallet (still following, aren’t you?). I explained the situation and was given a mobile phone number… which turned out to be wrong. I called the website owner again and was given the phone number of another family member of the wallet owner’s friend. That family member turned out to know the owner of the wallet as well and could even give me a mobile phone number!
It took me a while, but now I was almost there. Just one phone call to go and I would likely make someone very, very happy. The wallet’s owner picked up the phone, and without introducing myself (well, first name only, read on for why) I explained the situation and how I found him/her. The person had indeed lost a wallet, but seemed slightly surprised to hear a complete stranger offering to return it. I established the person’s identity by asking about full names, date of birth, and color of the bank card. The owner was eager to meet me, so I suggested to meet right away (“that would be great!”). I asked where he/she currently was, and while still on the phone, I checked the train schedules (long live the internet, again) and instructed the wallet’s owner to catch a particular train and meet me at a particular location inside a train station close to my house.
Some time later I was waiting at the meeting point when a train arrived. I recognized the person right away (ID cards feature a photo as well), handed over the wallet to its rightful owner, then suggested him/her to run to catch a particular train back to where he/she was coming from (yes, I also looked that one up in advance). I was given a big, big “thank you so much for everything and all”, said goodbye, and travelled back home with my ego slightly boosted, ehm, well, okay, heavily boosted.
That’s the story. That’s what happened.
Now, a strange observation. The wallet, as I found it at least, did not contain any money, except for some small coins. As I stated before, I inferred that the wallet had likely been left unattended inside that train for almost an hour before I found it. Perhaps there was just no money inside. But it could just as well be that someone else found the wallet in the mean time, took the money, and left it behind. And you know what’s strange? Even though I made a substantial effort to return the wallet to its owner, and I suspect not every person on this earth would do this, I actually felt guilty for a brief moment. Guilty that there was almost no money inside. Guilty for giving back a wallet with no money inside. Guilty for something that I couldn’t possibly know about. Afraid of being falsely accused of taking money out before returning the wallet. (Perhaps I should put some paper money in, just to be sure?)
But immediately after that short moment of completely ungrounded guilty feelings I realised that that would be completely ridiculous. I mean, seriously, what kind of thief would spend a considerable amount of time on returning a lost (not stolen!) wallet to its rightful owner after taking the money from it? Thinking some more about it, I decided it would be wiser not to know at all. So I didn’t ask whether there was supposed to be any money in the wallet when I returned it, and I made sure my encounter with the wallet’s owner was very brief, so that there was no way of bringing this topic up in our little conversation.
Another noteworthy observation. While searching so thoroughly through a stranger’s belongings and personal details, I realised how horribly privacy invading this actually is: identity, age, memberships, bank account details, receipts including time and locations, (secret?) lover’s notes… and it turned out that my two-sentence explanation of the situation prompted people to immediately give out details about their family structure, names, phone numbers, and so on. What if there was no found wallet at all? What if I just made up the story? The virtues of social engineering…
Anyway, that is why I deliberately chose to remain completely anonymous after reading the pieces of paper inside the wallet when scanning for phone numbers or other contact details (which I didn’t find). I didn’t make myself known at all: I only used my first name and turned off caller identification for all phone calls I made.
When the wallet’s owner asked for my mobile phone number so that he/she could call me in case he/she could not find me at the location I specified or if something went wrong with the trains, I simply told him/her not to worry (“trust me, I call you for a reason, I will be there, and I will recognize you”) and that I was certain I would find him/her, and otherwise _I_ would call.
Also note that I do not include any personal details of the wallet’s owner, so nobody will ever find out know who it was. Everything is safely hidden inside my head, and since I do trust myself, I know everything is alright. But in general, perhaps it’s better to leave these things to the police, may I ever get into a situation like this in the future. Think about it. Is it right how I handled this? Is it ethical? I don’t know. I suppose it is. Sort of.
Why write about this in such length, I hear you ask?
I don’t know. I just feel like sharing this with the world. Perhaps I’m just an arrogant person looking for confirmation. Perhaps I am. But then, at least I’m a decent one.
But the real reason is that it gave me a really noble feeling while doing all these things, knowing that someone I didn’t even know would be very happy about it. It cost me quite some time (searching and looking this up on the web, getting to the station and back) and also some money (for the phone calls, though this is negligible), and I got absolutely nothing in return, as intended. Happiness is in the doing good itself, and not a result of it. As my hero Baruch de Spinoza puts it: beatitudo non est virtutis praemium, sed ipsa virtus, but let’s not get too philosophical here… this post is already way too long.
Enough pondering for now. Nothing is ever simple. If you made it this far, thanks for reading.
Wouter Bolsterlee, also known as uws, a postmodern geek living in the Netherlands. Read more about me…
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