Despite everything else that went on in the world last week, the single biggest story in Indianapolis – by the water-cooler and dinner-table chat standards, at least – was the frenzied reaction to the unintentional cash giveaway when an armored car dropped $2 million in cash Thursday morning.
According to news reports, there were only about 25 pedestrians trying to scoop up the cash while two other citizens helped guard the money until police arrived at the scene. Almost all of the money was recovered.
The question debated over and over again throughout the city was: would you keep the money or would you turn it in? Opinions seemed equally divided, with the "I'd keep it" crowd having a slight edge.
Like many other potentially serendipitous moments in my life, I was quite literally an hour late from putting myself in that position. I arrived downtown that morning only after all the commotion had subsided and the money was safely tucked away from my grasp.
On the IndyGo bus headed away from downtown Thursday – admittedly not an ideal focus group when it comes to matters of money – sentiment was 100 percent in favor of keeping any of the $20 bills that might have floated your way.
"The people whose money that is," one lady said, "they had to have taken it from someone else. Probably some company that was rippin' off poor people. I would have grabbed that money and ran as fast as I could."
Another passenger advised her that, if she'd done that, security cameras might have captured her image and she'd be sought by police.
"How many 50-year-old skinny black women are
there in this city?" she asked. "They'd have to go through thousands of them
who look just like me. By then I would have spent all the money."
The conversation was still going on when I departed at 46th Street. For all I know, it's still going on.
To me, the key issue is moral equivalency. At my office a few years ago, two coworkers found a bank envelope stuffed with cash – obviously someone's paycheck. The people who found it knew they could have kept it without getting caught, since no name was on the envelope. All they had to do was split the cash and keep their mouths shut.
But since they knew that what they'd found was someone else's rent, grocery or baby formula money, they did the right thing and gave it to a supervisor, who found the cash's rightful home.
I would have done the same thing and so would most of you.
What about this situation, which happened to a friend of mine? Every other day or so, you visit the same liquor store for a six-pack. You chat with the owner each time. On one occasion, you give the man a $20 bill and he gives you back change for a $50 bill.
"I gave you a $20 bill," you say.
"I'm certain you gave me fifty," the owner insists. You look in your wallet and your only $50 bill is still there. What do you do?
If you're my buddy, you say to the owner, "Listen. You know I come in here two or three times a week. The next time I come in, let me know if your drawer came up short and I'll give you back your money. If not, I'll keep it."
Surely enough, the next time my buddy went into the store, the owner said: "About the other day... my drawer was off by $30." My friend opened up his wallet and handed back the money. Not everyone would have gone that far.
So what would I have done had the wind blown a few bundles of money my way? I'd certainly have scooped up as much as I could hold, just for the sheer fun of it, fanned myself with it, maybe even put it in the bathtub and rolled around naked in it if there were enough.
But in the end, even if it belongs to Republicans, which it probably does, I would have given it back. Two reasons: I'd have to live both in fear of police and with my conscience. Sorry, but it's true, and I'm as broke as anyone can be.
Most of all, I would want someone to do the same thing for me, as banal and trite as it sounds. So, if on the off chance I ever acquire a $20 bill and you see me drop it, please give it back to me. I'd do the same for you.