Our Histories Of Finding “Free Money”

I found myself in a car again yesterday, packed with friendly strangers. Without my nudging it, the topic of conversation turned to money — specifically, to what one does when one finds cash in unlikely places.

“I found hundreds of dollars once on the street,” said the woman in the front seat.

“Did you turn it in to the cops?” I asked.

“No …,” she said. “That didn’t occur to me. It might have been from a drug deal? I’ve seen a few go down in that area.

“I found it at the same time as another woman, actually. We both saw it at once, all that cash. So we gathered up the bills and together took them into a store, to ask if maybe someone had just made a big purchase. The guy said no. We asked a woman nearby if maybe she had dropped it after going to an ATM but she just said, ‘No English, no English!’ Everyone else avoided eye contact with us.”

“So what’d you do?” asked a guy from the back.

“We split it,” she replied. “$200 for each of us, I think.”

“I found a whole heap of Euros once in the street,” said the guy from the back. “I saw them glinting and then I was so excited, but when I got really close, I realize they were in a puddle of urine.”

Everyone groaned and made faces and then asked him how he reacted. After all, it’s gross to fish coins out of pee, but at least coins, as well as hands, can be washed. He wasn’t desperate for cash, though. What did he do?

“I took them,” he said. “I reached into that puddle of piss and pulled out the Euros. But only the big ones. I left the pennies.”

Everyone agreed that that was reasonable. I felt bad for the poor person who came after him and did probably brave the piss for the pennies. And I wondered whether maybe my fellow passenger had stumbled into a social experiment and researchers were hiding in the shadows, busily taking notes on who, if anyone, would reach into a fetid puddle for a couple of bucks.

“I’ve found $100 twice,” said the driver. “In Manhattan, of course.”

“Wow. I’ve never found anything,” said another woman from the back seat, originally from New Zealand. “Except sometimes bills in my winter coat. That’s exciting.”

“Oh yes, I love that,” said the woman from the front. “Coat Money Season is the best.”

Here are some highlights from my Free Money history:

+ $20 on a Midtown street by MoMA about 10 years ago. I used it to buy Ben and me (cheap) dinner.

+ $20 on the floor of my office about 7 years ago. I sent out an email asking if anyone dropped it but no one replied. I don’t remember what I spent it on but I do remember feeling awfully lucky.

+ $100, in twenties, in an unmarked envelope in the back of my dresser when I was a kid. That was maybe the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. My family speculated about it for hours: whose was it? where did it come from? why did I find it then?

The truth is, finding money is always exciting, but unless you’re pilling bills from your own coat pocket, whenever you discover something it’s because someone else lost it. I can’t help but think about the missing half of the story. Was someone crushed? Was their day ruined just as mine was made twinkly-special?

Or does everyone accept that, on some level, this is how the universe works: one day you’re the person patting your pockets to discover that your cash has disappeared on you, and the next, you’re finding gold in the streets — even if you have to clean the stink off before you get to enjoy it.