The 100 Yard Dash—In $180 Flat

On a December evening some eight or nine years ago, I swung my taxicab into a left turn onto a downtown one-way street and immediately hit the brakes. Dozens of cars were strewn helter-skelter across all three lanes of traffic, abandoned, their drivers out into the street chasing down green scraps! Dollar bills! US currency!

Nobody wishes on a stranger the agony unleashed by the loss of cold hard cash, and as I gleefully joined the frenzy, I found myself thinking, "I'll of course be giving this money back to whichever of these people dropped it, but, boy, what a dream, what a once-in-a-lifetime fantasy..."

In 15 seconds every bill had been snatched up, and in 30 more seconds every person in sight had scrambled back into a vehicle and sped off. "Is it mine?" I started to wonder, to hope. Inside the cab again I counted my fistful - eight 20s, one 10, two 1s - $172. I waited a few moments, then drove home and put the money in my sock drawer.

NEARLY A DECADE LATER - last night to be exact - I drove out to the airport to work the incoming nine o'clock rush: returning weekenders, plus business folks getting a head start on Monday morning. As I pulled into the airport driveway I counted my money to see how I was doing. Pretty decent: my wad of large-denomination bills consisted of eight twenties and two 10s - $180. Approaching the cab lot, I could see that there were only about thirty cabs waiting. Often there are a couple hundred empty cabs waiting at the airport, and I knew that with just thirty I would have almost no wait for a fare. The bad news: I needed to use the bathroom - bad! And now - distracted, excited, sizing things up - I did something I never do: instead of putting my big bills back into my wallet, I slipped them into my shirt pocket.

I parked at the rear of the cab line, got out, sprinted the 100 yards to the bathroom, used it, and sprinted (to the extent that a 49-year old man wearing sandals actually can sprint) the 100 yards back. The thirty cabs ahead of me had gone, and now the dispatcher and the cabs blocked behind me were honking mad. I waved apologies, climbed in, drove upstairs, loaded up five women and a mountain of luggage and drove them very carefully through a driving rainstorm toward downtown.

As we stood on the sidewalk in front of their hotel, my fares handed me two 20s and a 5 to cover a $30 fare - great tip! But the instant I opened my wallet to store the bills away, I knew. Even as I reflexively glanced down at my feet, even as I dropped down onto my knees to shine my flashlight under my cab - "Sir," said the doorman, "can I ask you to move your cab away from the entrance?' - even as I looked under the driver's seat, on the dash, under the pedals, in the backseat...even as I emptied out all my pockets...I knew. I had just driven a ten-hour shift for no pay.

Even as I drove back out to the airport to check with the cab dispatcher ("Cash! Oh, man..."), even as I stopped by the Lost and Found ("You could leave your name..."), even as I slowly retraced those 100 yards (now a sea of parked cabs and lounging drivers) I knew I was doing all this just so that I wouldn't be lying in bed last night and worrying if I'd done everything I could have.

SOME WILL MAINTAIN that this little vignette illustrates a greater truth, a bedrock cosmic principle. I'm not so sure, but I will go so far as to recommend this: If the universe lends you money, expect your interest rate to come in at right about one percent. And maybe a big balloon payment when you least expect it.

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