It is two o’clock in the morning on a Thursday and I am walking home, past the nocturnal electricians packing amps and instruments into trucks outside of Toad’s and boys throwing their drunken arms around drunken shoulders. I have just come from six hours of reading submissions for the Yale Literary Magazine and the sounds of occasional car wheels and clicking traffic lights seem to be contorting themselves into iambs and elegiac couplets. I’m thinking about the poetic potential of watching a tired family pile into an old Volvo when something catches my eye on the rained-clean asphalt of Tower Parkway.
It is a 50 dollar bill.
I squint at it and then cautiously pick it up. I am suddenly sure that something terrible is about to happen, that the power plant is about to open its harrowing gates and unleash its two stone lions, hungry for blood. The light is green but there are no cars anywhere.
I pick up the bill.
I have found three large bills in my life. The First was a 20 dollar bill in a pile of garbage on my way to school in seventh grade. I pocketed it happily. The Second was a 20 dollar bill in the back of a taxi cab this past summer. This bill posed more of a moral dilemma. I used it to pay the fare and then folded the change into the seat for the next passenger (“Why didn’t you just buy us all drinks?” asked my friends). And now I have found this: a sodden, crumpled, strangely valuable image of Ulysses S. Grant.
I remember the moment earlier in the night when a homeless man stopped my friend and me on our way into Gourmet Heaven. “Congratulations,” he said to my friend, who is not my boyfriend, “the girls weren’t that cute in my day. Do you have some money for the shelter? Just a dollar?” He was not letting go of my friend’s hand and we just wanted to go, just wanted to get away from him.
I fold menacing General Grant into my back pocket. This time, it is clear: I will have to give all the money away.
I call my friend Vanessa. We walk back to Gourmet Heaven and change the 50 into fives and 10s. But the homeless man from before is gone and the only person we can find to help is a French-Canadian freshman who wants a pack of cigarettes.
1) “Camel Filters,” I say.
“My generosity has no bounds.” The boy is drunk and it is only getting later and the streets are empty. A boy I do not know tells me to buy pot with it and give joints away instead “if [I] really want to help people.”
2) The next morning I see a toothless woman I recognize. “Honey, do you have a cigarette?” she asks.
“No–want some money?”
“Honey, I’m just looking for a cigarette.”
“Well, if I give you money, you can buy a cigarette.”
She considers. “Okay,”she says. $5
3) Home in New York, I go to the subway station with my sister. We buy two rides from a guy hustling rides (“a single ride? Want a single ride?”) instead of paying the actual tollbooth. Everyone wins. The MTA loses. Standing in the stale air of the platform we wonder: if you can’t use an Unlimited Metrocard more than once in 15 minutes, how many does the man have? $4
4) We see two young people sitting on the sidewalk with a dirty stuffed porcupine and a sign: “It is getting too cold to sleep on the street. Please help us buy a bus ticket out of here.” I ask my sister to give them the money, but she insists that I do it. There’s only a penny in the cup until I add my bill. $10
5) We walk past the Housing Works Thrift Store on 23rd Street and look among its tattered racks for something as cool as the tweed jacket in the window. There isn’t, but there is a donation basket. We wedge money in among the pennies. $4
6) On the subway platform, a man plays Coltrane and we watch his light fingers tap the tired pad of his sax. A little boy puts a dollar in the hat by the man’s foot. $10
7) We walk into the uptown Ricky’s. Neither of us knows what we’re going to be for Halloween, but we each buy fake eyelashes and tubes of glitter.
“Think we can share one?”
“You’ll be in Vermont and I’ll be in Connecticut.” I reach for my wallet (the change from the 50 is in my back pocket) and then stop. This is more important than charity; I need to be a glam rocker. $11.51.
Liberal guilt can wait. I found a 50 dollar bill on the ground.
Lucy Teitler wants to tell anyone who lost a 50 last Thursday that she didn’t find it. Honest.