Good Narrative Principles

Five Bucks


This particular story takes place right at the eve of the Depression that hit this country and one that we are still suffering through today. It is also a true story. Happened three days after my lumpectomy (though my surgeon had another name for it — something having to do with a needle and a process that bore no relationship to slicing up my breast — but that’s another story).

I thought I was fine. Fine in the limited sense of no real pain. But emotionally I was pretty fragile. I was in the city because I felt obliged to attend an office Christmas party.

At the kiosk at Grand Central I bought myself a round of off-peak and peak tickets. All by credit card. And then, while I was at it, I decided to check my Metrocard. All in all, a pretty dull beginning to a story. Something we do every day. Take out our plastic, slide it through the reader and leave with stuff.

I like to think of myself as a pretty methodical person, a creature of habit. I have a hook by the door to park my keys, and if the keys aren’t there, I rightfully panic, because I rarely slip up.

So I walk to Macy’s to buy my mother what in my mind is a fabulously expensive jar of face cream. She’s become quite attached to this cream and uses it I’m sure sparingly but none-the-less after a few years the cream is gone and the price has doubled. OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe the price has only increased by a third. But it is an extravagance that I can barely afford. I’m at the cosmetic’s counter going through the slide the card into the reader and get the stuff ritual when I reach into my trusty left breast pocket (for those of you who are students of irony, it was yes, the same breast that was recently assaulted by “cancer lite” and operated on by the surgeon). The pocket is empty. No wallet addition inside.

I’m not freaking out yet, not panicking. I do a stupid check once more as if there is a remote chance that this time I would hit pay dirt. I check my bag. Check the pockets again. And now I’m officially in panic mode.

I race back to Grand Central. I have little memory of my frantic trip back. Somewhere in my mind I know I am that asshole cutting people off at every corner and jumping in front of moving cars. At Grand Central I check the little cubbies around the kiosk machines. I find the Lost and Found. Wait on a line. See the numerous other wallet insert thing-a-ma-bobs, tumbling out onto the stainless counter and mine is not one of them.

I call my husband. He’s not there. I start filling out the police report. My head is spinning with a growing sense of bad luck. All the emotional muscles I had employed a mere three days before to get through the two hours of mammograms and the prep for surgery are back in gear. Deep breathing. Positive thoughts. Breath flowing from nose to throat to diaphragm and out again.

But it is that fuckin’ Christmas soundtrack that is my undoing. The musical score for my forty mammograms included “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, “Sleigh Bells Rings are you Listening?” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and on and on. So you have to wonder, what is it with cheery music at stressful locations? Is it for benefit of the staff?

Having finished the report, I trudge back to the train to head home. I sit down, wondering all the while which Shaman, Medicine Man, Woman, Witch or Spirit Catcher should I call to chase away the bad mojo that now lives inside me.  I open up my bag and idly go through it one more time.

My bag is now completely empty. I feel around behind the back pocket and there it is. My wallet thingy. In my hands. My clueless face on the driver’s license stares back at me.

I then undo everything I set in motion. I reach my husband and am glad he dawdled before cancelling all my credit cards. I go to the Police Station and they have the grace to not laugh but instead deliver the party line that any lost property that finds its way back to its rightful owner is a happy day.

I head to the train to go to the party that I still should attend. I vow on the way to not share this anecdote with one and all. I will be the smiling non-bummer at the party. I will be the one who tells jokes. Talk about tomorrow’s snowstorm with relish. I will be That Girl.

But on the way over, on the cross-town shuttle I listen to a girl with a scratchy voice panhandling. Her story isn’t particularly novel, compelling or specific. The train pulls into the station and she’s saying how one day you wake up and there you are — someplace you would not have predicted you’d be.

So I gave her five bucks.

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