It was the day before <spooky voice> the polar vortex.
I had a very sick little girl at home. I had a tight budget with which I had to get all the things you need to get when you have a child with the stomach flu, a little person who desperately needs allergy meds, you are dangerously low on things like toilet paper and the news keeps saying that the entire country is about to resemble Hoth and that you will be trapped in your house forever.
My list was long.
I had 50 bucks to do it with. So yeah, Walmart it was. The calculator in my brain was smoking out of my ears from over use. The adding and subtracting and multiplying. I mean, I'm a social worker. Math ain't right. Add in that I was in Walmart with every single other human being doing the exact same thing that I was and I was about to start crying the pity tears for myself. It was wall to wall. All of the people. All of the math. Budgets are fun! Basically, I could have lost my shit at any moment.
I turned the corner into the frozen food aisle because ice cream is important so don't even. That's when I rolled my cart right over a folded piece of paper. I stopped. I knew exactly what it was by the tell tale punch holes on the edge. I picked it up. My heart skipped a beat. A blank and untraceable money order for $590.00. Receipt still attached.
Did I mention it was blank? Because it was. It was blank. The blank-est.
I folded it back up. My heart sped up. My brain started working at a cheetah's pace. The money was hot in my hand. My inner calculator disappeared. Poof!
I could get the big pack of toilet paper. I could go buy steaks. Cetaphil! I could get Cetaphil for Plum's eczema! Shit, this would catch up all of our bills. This is someone's rent. This is someone's important bill. This someone else's money.
I turned my cart away from the meat aisle and I approached the customer service desk. "I found this on the floor", I said as I handed it over. My fingers were not quite on board with this and were slow to un-peel. The lady looked down at it and her eyes grew wide. "Wow. People don't turn in free money these days". Free money. That stuck in my head. Ugh...was it free money? Shit, it WAS free money!
My fantasy self screamed "GIVE IT BACK" and ran for the door. But the real me got some flushed cheeks and smiled. "It's someone's rent. It's not mine. I hope you find them. I hope they come back.", I said with a truth that I knew and was grateful for but also with a pang in my gut. Because...money. It's the devil.
It wasn't mine. It wasn't free money. I could have walked right out of there. But at who's expense? Theirs, sure. But also mine. And in the end I don't think I made the abnormal decision. I think that the majority of people would have made the exact same call. Because so many of us have been in those freaked out shoes. So many of us have lost money we desperately needed. So many of us have felt that horrifying feeling of wanting to throw up because our rent money was gone.
No, making that call wasn't the surprise to me. The surprise was how I thought about not turning it in for a few seconds. The surprise was how my two inner voices argued with each other for a bit. The surprise was that I dreamed of all the ways I needed that money before I realized what I was holding in my hand. I didn't see that part coming. I always thought I was better than that.
Being human. It's a war with yourself sometimes, right?
I thought about this while staring at my cart and realizing that while I warred with myself over this money I had lost count of my budget. I was struck by my understanding that it was OK if I went over by a little bit. Sure, we scrape by. But we DO get by. Twenty bucks here or there will not break our backs. But losing rent? That sure would. My inner turmoil slowed. I was happy with my decision. And I made peace with that version of me who thought about keeping the money. Human nature, I suppose.
While I waited my turn in the longest check-out line ever (because again, everyone was shopping. Everyone.), I stared at the customer service desk hoping to see someone run frantically to the desk and walk away relieved that someone had turned in their money. It didn't happen. I will never know the outcome. What I did see though was a woman and her child with a cart of groceries. It was clear she had been caught stealing. As they took pictures of her cart, my heart sank for her. Her face swelled with tears, I wished for her that this was over. That she could go back and undo her transgression. And part of me, a small but significant part, wished that she would have found that money. Her cart was filled with toilet paper, bottled water and food. Not electronics and household appliances. I saw diapers in there, too.
I was once again squarely in conflict with my own belief system. Nuts.
Watching her be escorted to a back room stirred conflicting emotions in me. I recalled the surprising relief that I felt in those seconds when I held someone else's money in my hand. I imagine it felt similar to almost getting away with stealing a cart of groceries. The rush. The expected relief mingling with the the fear of knowing it was wrong. In the end, she and I made different choices. In the end she was paying a high price. So why did I wish for her to get away with it?
Because in the end we are not that different, she and I. She's not all that different from you, either, I suspect. She was there for the same reasons that I was. To prepare. To feed her family. The only difference is that I am blessed with enough financial security to make that happen and she wasn't. Humans make bad choices sometimes. Desperation clouds our compass changing black and white to grey. I experienced that in the frozen aisle that night before turning my cart around. I considered the grey for a minute. There was a time in my life where I know I would have made a different choice. I would have taken that money. I'm not proud of that truth. But it is what it is. 18 years ago, I was her. The only difference was that I only had to feed myself.
So I guess that I am offering that bad choices do not a bad person make (otherwise I'd be screwed). We have all considered grey and I would bet that most of us have chosen grey at some point in our lives. I have been thinking about this for days. It stirred something in me. But I keep coming back to one simple idea...
I pray that someday she is in the position to find $590 on the floor of a store and turn it in. Because that would mean that she is OK. And being OK, changes your life.
Ask me how I know.