April 26, 2002



A Fool & His Money

  I've been losing money out in public lately. On purpose.

I got to thinking one day about how finding money can be sort of exciting and memorable. Think about it - if you've ever found money lying around, you probably remember it, even if it happened a long time ago. You probably felt a little zing of excitement when it happened. Me, I remember finding $20 in the money slot of the ATM at the local 7/11 about four years ago. Of course, I remember it because I feel guilty about pocketing it instead of turning it in to the cashier, but that's beside the point. Finding money makes an impression on you, it has an impact, and if you're not a low rent thief like me then more than likely it's kind of a cool memory.

So I decided to start brightening peoples' days. I leave dollar bills lying around whenever I think of it. On top of the towel dispenser in a public restroom, on a shelf in the supermarket, on the floor at McDonald's - I "lose" them in public places like that. Sometimes I try to make it look like a genuinely lost dollar, other times I place it in such a way that it's obvious it was left there on purpose - that way people like me with no moral code won't have their nasty old conscience torturing them when they keep it. Throwing money away like this is weird, I know, but I like doing it. It costs me hardly anything to know I'm making an impression on someone's life, creating a memory they're probably going to hold for a long time.

I generally don't stick around to see the aftermath when I make my donation to good karma; I just put the bill in a relatively conspicuous place and then go on about my day. There's something about hanging around to witness the effect that feels wrong, that somehow muddles the point of the whole exercise. It just feels like hit-and-run street philanthropy is the right way to do it.

Despite all that, I did get a chance to witness the results recently without breaking this weird self-imposed rule. I was picking Beth and Zoe up at LAX from a flight from New York and we had arranged to meet in Baggage Claim. Their flight was delayed, the place was packed with people, I had time to kill, there was a conveyor belt going round and round: I dug into my pocket to make a donation to the karmic bank. And since I was stuck waiting there it was okay to watch. I ultimately donated three dollars to the cause, sending them out into the cosmos one at a time.

The place was an absolute zoo, people packed in around the baggage carousels like sardines in a can, all either intently scanning for their bag among the ones going around on the belt or staring off into space, bored as they waited for their bags to be spit out of the luggage-drooling maw in the ceiling. I squeezed through the crowd to get next to the carousel, folded a bill lengthwise, and - this was the tricky part because I didn't want the people next to me to see what I was doing - "dropped" it onto the belt. And then watched to see what would happen.

The first of the bills traveled about 20 feet around the bend, then was snatched up by a guy in his mid-20's. He was talking to his friend and idly watching the moving belt when suddenly his body tensed up: he'd seen the dollar. He darted forward and snatched it up, then looked around furtively. When nobody met his eye to claim ownership I could see his attitude change as he realized it was his, that no one was going to ask for it back. He turned to his buddy and showed him the money. I was too far away to hear them, but I could read his gestures as he told the story:

This money just came floating around the bend. It was just sitting there! So I grabbed it. Yeah, I found a dollar!

Both of them spent the next several minutes intently watching the belt to see if any more money came their way. Sadly for them, none did.

That was fun. Impression made, a story sparked that was surely shared with friends for days.

I wasn't sneaky enough with the second one, but that actually made it more interesting. I slipped the bill onto the belt and it had hardly traveled five feet before a guy in his 30's snapped it up. He too looked around to see if anyone would challenge him, and when he caught me watching him he assumed it was mine. But something about me must have seemed off, because he didn't ask if I'd dropped the money, what he asked was if I had put it there. I admitted that I had and he tried to give the dollar back to me. I told him to keep it, that I did it for fun as kind of an experiment. Well, that just solidified my status as a weirdo in his mind and he wanted nothing to do with it. I wouldn't take the money back? Fine. He dropped it back on the conveyor. It was snatched up by someone else another 10 feet down.

Two impressions made for the price of one. Fun.

The last dollar was the best one. It was a young girl who spied it, maybe 9 years old. She was with her family - Mom and Dad, I think there was maybe a brother and/or sister - and she was bored out of her skull. Mom and Dad were caught up in their own concerns, Dad looking around to make sure they were at the right baggage carousel, I think Mom was scolding one of the kids about something, and the girl with the sharp eyes was leaning over the empty-yet-turning carousel idly staring at nothing. I watched the dollar make its way to her, and I saw the energy zing through her body when it crossed into her field of vision.

Everything in her snapped to attention, and for a moment she seemed surprised into immobility, then she darted forward and snatched the dollar up. Her face lit up with a smile and she did a happy little jump, then turned to her dad and excitedly showed him the dollar she'd found. Again, I read her gestures as she told him how it had come out of nowhere to just show up right there in front of her!!!

She and Dad talked about it for a little while, Mom got in on the game, the girl got to maybe gloat to her brother/sister about her find, but eventually everyone went back to their business after the excitement died down. Everyone but the little girl. She carefully smoothed the dollar out, folded it and tucked it into her pocket, and went back to leaning over the carousel and staring straight down - - but every few seconds she'd sneak a peek over to the left, where the dollar had come from before, watching for more money to appear from nowhere.

Impression made, an exciting story to tell about her trip to Los Angeles created, a memory made that will probably last for years. And a day made as well - mine. I'm smiling now, remembering it. Her reaction, the thrill I put into that little girl's day -- that's exactly why I do this.

I'll buy that for a dollar.