Thursday, November 23, 2017

A counter-cautionary tale

I spent the third morning and early afternoon of my vacation in New York City hopping on and swapping trains to get from my friend Ben’s apartment in Brooklyn to the Upper Westside. We’d had the three floors of the museum to ourselves and then had taken a leisurely walk through Central Park. I was feeling downright lucky to be off work for an entire week and to be out in the middle of the day enjoying the few hours of sunshine that broke through late November’s smoky sky.

That feeling fled and panic set in when I reached into an empty coat pocket intending to retrieve my metro card at the Columbus Circle station. Ben sifted through the stack of cards in my wallet and I checked and rechecked the pockets of my coat and backpack. Not only was my metro card missing but so was my membership to the co-op back in Burlington, Vermont, my driver’s license and my debit card — which I kept together in a plastic sleeve.

Ben called the museum to see if anything had turned up, and I logged into my banking app to check for charges. We decided it was best for Ben to head home and me to go back to my sister’s apartment where I could call the bank and cancel my card. I wondered if I had been the victim of a pickpocket. I imagined someone maxing out the credit limit on my debit card at that glass-cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.

Alone on the subway, anxious to get above ground where the cell signal would be strong enough to place the call, I distracted myself by using the spotty signal to load my Facebook app. When it opened, I had a message request.

I hit accept and saw a string of conversation bubbles, a few missed calls and a picture of my card sleeve pinched between what I assumed to be the sender’s forefinger and thumb.

“Hi Emilie my name is Shawn did you lose your ID metro and bank card?”

I clicked on Shawn’s profile picture and saw a black man who appeared to be in his 30s posing behind a sound mixing console. I returned to the messages.

“If you are still in the city let me know where you want to meet. Police station, Starbucks, wherever you feel most comfortable.”

Shawn later told me over the phone that he had worried I would think I was being scammed. In fact, he said his wife asked why he was putting so much effort into contacting me.

“I said, ‘You have to. You don’t know what someone else is going through,’” he said.

Shawn went on to say that he found my cards in the seat of a northbound B train.

“I figured you’d be going crazy.”

I felt a pang of guilt that I had been relaxing in the sunshine while Shawn imagined me panicking.

We agreed to meet near his home in Harlem a few hours later. Shawn said he had to pick up his daughter from school, and I needed time to let my sister’s dog out in Brooklyn and retrace my way to upper Manhattan.

I watched Leo sniff a clump of brown grass, and I assessed the impact of what I had left in the hands of other B train passengers (a half-dozen metro fares, a $2,000 line of credit, a morning at the DMV to replace my license and whatever that replacement would cost). All that would amount to a vacation buzzkill when I returned to Vermont. Leo arched into a squat and did his business.

As I set out for the train station again, I wondered if I was doing something ill-advised by more safety conscious people. Based on our brief conversation, I trusted Shawn, but I also remembered recent conversations with my therapist about evaluating information at the same time as maintaining an open heart. The information: I was heading alone to Harlem to meet a stranger who had access to my ID and still-active debit card. Even if everything was as simple as we had discussed on the phone — we would meet outside the 116th St. station — did he expect a monetary reward?

I thought of the time that the building super in Argentina tried to scam my sister and me after thieves ran off with our money and keys. We tipped the super for helping us get in touch with our landlady, which must have given him the idea that we had expendable cash because our electricity went out and he came down to say he needed 1,000 pesos to turn it back on.

I was interrupted by another text from Shawn letting me know that he was back on the Westside after picking up his daughter. I responded that I would call when I got to the station.

It was dark by the time I emerged from the subway. New York’s office workers were bustling home. The fruit sellers in front of the station spoke in patois as they loaded plums into a cargo van. A homeless man sitting by the station exit eyed me suspiciously. I’m here, I thought, and called Shawn.

“I’ll be there in five,” he said. “I’ll have a cap and a blue vest. My daughter will be with me.”

I scanned the groups crossing the street and avenue as the lights danced back and forth. Everyone seemed to know exactly where they were heading, even the homeless man heaved himself to his feet and shuffled away. I thought surely more than five minutes had passed and maybe I had spent the past hour on the train for nothing. Being left for a fool seemed an appropriate price to pay for my carelessness.

My self-ridicule was interrupted by the sight of an attractive man rounding the corner. He held the hand of a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. He was taller than I had imagined but smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Shawn.”

We shook hands, and he gave me a white envelope.

“Thank you so much,” I said and knelt down to talk to his daughter.

“Your father is a good man. He saved my,” I paused to search for an age-appropriate word, “behind.”

I stood up. “Thank you again. Please text me your mailing address when you get a chance.”

“Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family,” Shawn said and turned to walk away. His daughter looked back as they rounded the corner and offered a shy wave.

I thought about the courage it takes to be kind when people regard you with suspicion. I had been in that position a few weeks earlier when I had decided combat the onset of my seasonal affective disorder by making a dozen paper lanterns and bringing them to the park in front of my house.

“How much do you want?” a passerby had asked.

“Nothing. I’m giving them away,” I had said as I stood before my candlelit lanterns adorned with paper cutouts of fish scales, lupines, trees, waves and a rooster.

“I’m good,” the man said and backed away.

I reentered the station but stopped on the landing to write: “Thank you again for going out your way to help me out, Shawn. My faith in humanity is restored (for today :)”

“Awwww glad I was the one to restore faith.”

I opened the envelope to find the sleeve with all four cards tucked into it. I took out my metro card and swiped through the turnstile.


  1. A wonderful, beautifully written story. This was a joy to read on Thanksgiving!

  2. Wonderful story. Thank you to Shawn and his like.