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New York City Continues to Surprise Me

I’ve lived in New York City most of my life and I’ve heard all the stereotypes. If you visit New York City, it can be described as invariably cold, distant, harsh, and uncaring and all too willing to take advantage of the unwary. Further, the general consensus is that the NYPD, said to be New York’s finest, cannot be relied on. As a New Yorker, I can see the truth in some of this, but this past weekend showed me that the stereotype is overhyped.

Flash back to the last time I lost my wallet in Tokyo in 2012. In chic and trendy downtown Tokyo, ironclad public honesty among civilians and police officers is the rule rather than the exception. Even so, I would never have believed that a civilian would turn in a foreigner’s lost property until it happened to me. Nor would I have believed that I would have a brush with the martial underpinnings of the government and emerge unscathed.

Distraught after I discovered I was without my pocketbook and more importantly, my passport, I was directed to the police station, a stately, spotless grey granite edifice that was almost as elegant as the local hotels and restaurants. Although I was a foreign visitor – no make that a “foreign guest” and supposedly to be made welcome in Japan – the cop on duty was no pushover. I was grilled for thirty-five minutes as to my name, origin, time of arrival in Japan, time of estimated departure from Japan, purpose in Japan, and – key question – why I lost my wallet.

He gave me the impression that it was a huge hassle – even a personal dilemma – for him. How could I have lost my wallet? Was it not the receptacle of very important information, including my passport? And once again – how could I have done such a foolish thing and how was it I could not explain it? Did I not understand that the police of Tokyo had many more important things to do than to run after foreigners and deal with their foolish ways? At the time, I thought he was overdoing it a bit – it was a slow day, nobody to impress with his stern policeman mien.

Then there was a burst of shouting and the sounds of hard boots marching, and phalanxes of Tokyo policemen burst out from behind the walls in full uniform complete with flashlights, batons, tear gas, and guns. I later discovered that there was a large-scale protest in downtown Tokyo in regards to the nuclear power plants, and these guys were on their way to quell the protestors. Unfortunately for my policeman, he couldn’t take part in the more action-packed activities of the day – he had to deal with me. I’m assuming he felt that he had to further impress upon me that my lost wallet is small potatoes compared to the protest unfolding over nuclear power, but was still not a matter to be taken lightly.

After the other police officers had marched out, it took another ten minutes of questioning before the cop grudgingly acknowledged that the wallet was probably mine and he supposed he could release it to me, but that I must fill out four sheets of paperwork before he would let it go. He warned me that I should be more careful with my property. Did I not know better, coming from violent drug crazed and lawless New York City? And to be more careful, even in law abiding Japan? Well, I couldn’t argue with that.

Flash forward to when I lost my wallet on West 96th Street in New York within the past month. West 96th is a fairly tough neighborhood, but I was shocked that I got the wallet back due to the energy and/or good will of six citizens, two of whom were policemen and who had no demonstrable ulterior motive. If you have as many years of rugged experience in the city as I do, there’s no way you can expect any sort of general public honesty and benevolence. After all, New York is not Tokyo.

It was a sunny Sunday and I had just emerged from the thrift shop at an Episcopalian church on 96th and Broadway – a spot I love because it has great publishers’ overruns, including everything from sci-fi to murder mysteries to historical novels to hard science, and it also has an amazing collection of clothing from Southeast Asia. I was sitting on the concrete fence outside happily looking over my purchases when a tiny, haggard, emaciated, ragged little woman came by hands thrust out begging for change. She explained that she had “real money” in the bank but that she couldn’t get at it as it was Sunday and she didn’t have an ATM card.

Even though I assumed that any money I gave her would go towards nefarious activities I dug into my wallet to hand her a couple of bucks. To do this, I had to fish around my bag and haul out books, change, notebooks, makeup, and tissues to get at the wallet and pay her, then start putting the mess back in the bag. It was probably at that point that someone grabbed it. I never saw anyone do it, nor did I realize I had been robbed until a good half hour later in a restaurant when I reached for money to pay the bill.

The worst about being robbed is the anxiety you experience in the shock of losing personal items. First is the anxiety over security – you think to yourself, “They’ve got my name! And my address! Even worse – my house keys! They’ll break in before I even get home!” In fact, a break in is more likely to be an issue if the theft has happened in your own neighborhood, for petty thieves don’t often venture beyond the local subway stops. But my neighborhood was a good ways away from the church, so I thought I was probably okay. The second round is over your identity and purchasing power. You try to reassemble in your mind what credit cards were in your wallet and what would have to be cancelled. And whether the thief may have been able to run up a substantial bill or bills on your cards before you cancelled them.

I was very lucky. The theft of the wallet, a bright red faux alligator plastic thing had occurred just outside an Episcopalian church. We went back to the church thrift shop to investigate and found that a local Episcopalian actually had come in with the wallet and wanted to find its owner. A furious woman screaming vituperation followed him and claiming it was her wallet and she had been robbed, but that he and the thrift shop folks had refused to surrender it to her. Instead, the thrift shop church lady told him to go to the 100th St. Precinct and to give the wallet to them. Both the Good Samaritan and the screeching woman had set off north at a brisk pace four blocks to the precinct.

I was stunned that someone had actually found the wallet and attempted to turn it in to the neighboring church, and that he had actually taken advice from the church thrift shop to turn it in to the cops. This is rare behavior for the Big Apple. As I walked towards the precinct, assuming that it would be a lost cause, I made a number of speculations. The guy probably never actually made it to the cop shop. If he did, the wallet would not have accompanied him. If he did arrive with the wallet, the wallet would have been stripped of cash, checks, credit cards, probably my prescription cards. The Samaritan would be expecting a reward. The cops on duty would be slow, hostile, and prepared to make a long drawn out issue of it on a slow Sunday. The cops would decide they didn’t believe me unless I came back with photo ID.

But I was wrong on all points. I was greeted by a young, fresh faced, pink-cheeked officer who seemed genuinely delighted to meet me. He explained to me that a man did come to the precinct with a wallet, followed by a furious woman who claimed it was hers and he had stolen it. The cops didn’t buy either story, and took possession of the wallet. This eager young cop began systematically to call the numbers on every card in my wallet to see if he could track me down or failing that, find someone who knew me and could vouch for me, but as it was Sunday, he was unsure he could find anyone to answer the phone. Eventually, he reached John Lyman, my surprised editor in DC, who kindly assisted him in finding the information. The cop handed me the wallet and advised me to go through it to see what might be missing.

At this point I interjected – recalling my experience in Tokyo – did he not need some ID from me? Right now? I began systematically reciting my SS#, date of birth, place of birth, voting precinct, checking account number, mother’s maiden name. He stopped me halfway through, as it was apparently unnecessary.

In a frenzy of gratitude, I also asked the name of the first Good Samaritan, but it was on this point that the good cop was a little reluctant. He told me the two who came in earlier, the possible good guy and unpleasant screeching woman, looked suspicious and had raised doubts in his and his partner’s mind as to what kind of a game they might be running. He advised me not to track them down. I thanked the officers, shook their hands, checked the wallet (which did indeed appear to be intact) and exited.

This story followed a cast of six, each of whom told a different story: the emaciated panhandling woman with no ATM card, the ostensibly honest citizen who told the thrift shop lady and the cops that he had found the wallet, the erratic furious woman (possibly the same person as the emaciated street lady) who also claimed that she had found the wallet and claimed he had stolen it from her and the dispassionate thrift shop church lady who directed them both to the 100th Precinct, and the two young, eager, precinct cops who handled the case, and actually investigated it.

And no two people would tell you the same story. I imagine I will never know exactly what happened. Nevertheless, I am very grateful to the young cop who refused to let the wallet go off with either person who claimed they found it, and who persisted in making calls until he tracked me or someone in my network down. He doesn’t know it, but I’m going to send his commander a letter of thanks. Maybe I’ll do the same for the cop in Tokyo.