It was Christmas season and I was 10 or so, on a New York City bus with my mother and brother. At one stop, a woman got on, holding two big bags of gifts. The bus lurched on takeoff and a bunch of presents spilled out of the bags.
My bro and I rushed to her rescue (probably at my mother's order) and after everything was back in the bags, the lady reached in her purse and took out a handful of change.
"No, thanks," said my mother.
"But I'd like to give them something," said the lady.
"That's kind of you," said my mother. "But they need to know you don't take rewards for good deeds."
At the time, I didn't understand the underlying logic - that good deeds should be their own reward - but I did understand my mother's dictum perfectly. It was, after all, a direct order from She Who Must Be Obeyed and it stuck with me.
Due to my 45 years of running and biking, I've had lots of chances to do good deeds because of things I've found on the side of the road and have had chances to return. Sure, most of it is dreck - disposable cigarette lighters (do those people really believe "disposable" means once it quits working you're supposed to toss it out the car window?), bottles, cans, bags and other packaging, ripped and filthy clothes - you get the picture.
But every now and then I come across some real treasures. Once I found an entire set of high-end socket wrenches. Luckily the owner had his name engraved on them so I could return them. I also found a Mini-Mag flashlight, also with the owner's name engraved, so I could return that. Last year I found a wallet with money and credit cards and, luckily, an ID.
Perhaps my most astounding find was a genuine air-force-issue flight jacket?- one of the old leather ones, with the sheepskin lining. It fell off the back of a flatbed truck that passed me, but I couldn't get the driver's attention before he cruised off into the distance. When I went through the pockets, I found only one thing: A speeding ticket that had the owner's home address. I managed to deliver the jacket to his doorstep, much to his surprise. Since then, I often thought that if he'd either respected speed limits or paid his tickets, I would've had a fabulous jacket.
The sole exception
Some of the people I returned things to offered me money, but I turned them down. There was, however, one thing I did accept a reward for.
It was a bunch of years ago and I was riding my bike on Route 86, when something in the shoulder caught my eye. I had no idea what it was when I first saw it, only that it didn't seem like junk. I braked to a stop, went back and picked it up. It was a business checkbook.
Sweet, I thought. This'll be a cinch to return, since it had the owner's name and address right there. I thought, I'll find this guy no sweat and then be on my merry way.
I did find him no sweat but was not then on my merry way.
I rode my bike up to his door and knocked, and a few moments later a man opened the door. I introduced myself, told him about the checkbook, and handed it to him.
Shaking his head, he said, "You know what I did?"
"No," I said.
"I had a bunch of stuff in my hands, was in a hurry, and must've put the checkbook on the roof of the car. Then I forgot it was there and drove off."
"Don't feel like the Lone Ranger," I said. "I've done that a bunch of times. With gloves, groceries, you name it. And I'm sure we're not the only ones to do it."
"Hope not," he said.
"Why?" I said. "Misery loves company?"
"In this case, yes."
Then he snapped his fingers and said, "Hey, wait here a minute, I'll be right back." He left and when he came back he had something in his hand.
"Here," he said, holding it out.
It was a check for $25 dollars.
"Oh no," I said, "I can't take it."
"Please," he said. "Take it."
He waved it in front of me.
"Look," I said, "That's really generous, but I can't accept anything for a favor."
"Dunno," I said, not wanting to actually explain why, and seem like an Oedipal mess. "I just don't think it's right. You know, you're supposed to do favors."
"So I'm doing you one now," he said, looking somewhat agitated.
"You are," I said. "But I really can't take your money."
"Sure you can," he said. "It's money. Anyone can take money."
"But not for good deeds," I said. "It'd make me feel bad."
"Yeah, well, I'll feel bad if you don't take it."
Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a standoff. And at last, I had the answer to that age-old riddle of what happens when the irresistible force meets the unmovable object. Nothing happens, that's what.
We both stood there, staring, if not glaring, at each other for probably another 30 seconds. Finally, I reached a decision of Solomonic proportion.
"OK," I said, "I'll take it."
And I did.
Even though he didn't understand my position, I understood his: He was just a decent, generous guy. And if I turned down his gift, he'd be insulted, something I never intended, but couldn't avoid if I stuck by my guns.
Sometimes, sticking by your guns is the smartest thing to do. Other times, it'll just get you killed, one way or another.
I thanked him profusely and left. Then I went to the bank, cashed the check and gave it to the Tri-Lakes Humane Society, as a gift in his name.
I never heard from him again. I never needed to, either.