for those who wander, wonder & define life on their own terms

New York Stories: The Five-Dollar Bill

five-dollars-waddedFinding a five-dollar bill and keeping it for yourself isn’t a crime.  I’d pretty much just call it a lucky break.  That fiver will get you a cheap meal in a pinch, a toothbrush and some toothpaste, a few rides on the subway, maybe even a hand-job if you’re up for that sort of thing…I mean it’s not a nothing.  But when is a five-dollar bill worth more than its face value?

Spending your first thirty-minutes in New York is slightly hectic and not without confusion.  It takes some courage (even with massive pre-planning) to choose to save the $50.00 taxi fare from Laguardia into the heart of the city and instead for $2.50 pick up the Q70 bus to the Jackson-Heights subway station.  There’s a chance you’ll miss your stop, get lost, maybe not even catch the bus in the first place.  And then there are the people, bus riders, heaven help us!  No one takes public transportation except a bunch of no-good scallywags (said in my best grumpy grandpa voice).  You might get mugged, or raped.  Or not.  As it turns out, 55% of New Yorkers take public transportation as opposed to a national average of 4.9%.

As my daughter and I stood waiting for the Q70, watching the faces around us diversify into Italian, African, Greek, Indian, Vietnamese, and so on, and watched the common social tropes of our nation, texting, talking on the cell, reading, listening to music, scrounging around in their purse (or was that just me?), I realized the great joy of public transportation.  We’re all in this together to save money, to be efficient, to be environmentally conscious, but then again, I hadn’t been mugged.  So, I pulled my head out of my purse and just smiled at it all.  Smiled at those around me and the sense of companionship I felt for my fellow travelers on this city-bound bus.  And most of them, well, they smiled right back.  Under that stoic New York demeanor people wanted to connect.

(c) Brenda Elaine

As my bus pulled up to what I thought was my Jackson-Heights stop, I stood up with all the bravado of a local, except…I wasn’t.  I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down expecting to see a vagrant asking for money.  Instead, a handsome Italian guy shook his head at me and said, “not yet.”  Nary a word had I spoken to him prior to this.  Just that quick shared smile.  I sat back down feeling sheepish.  Fast-forward five minutes, another tap.  Same guy points to the corner ahead, “it’s up here.”  Then, as we rolled to a stop, he grabbed my suitcase from out of my hands and jumped off the bus.

I urged my daughter to hurry and prepared to sprint down the sidewalk after him, chasing my Guess bag with the soon-to-be-broken handle.  Eight days in New York wearing the same plaid skirt simply would not work. Fortunately, Luggage Romeo was there waiting for us to disembark with my belongings safely in hand.  As I took the handle, he gave a wink and a wave and left us standing there as other passengers swirled around.  We joined the throng and headed for the subway station stairs, passing through the iron gates and stopping at the ticket machine to purchase our passes.  Again, me scrounging in my purse for debit cards and such.  This is when it happened.

“Excuse me, Ms.”  I look up.  It’s another passenger from the bus – a mocha-skinned, thirty-something, friendly-looking, bald man in a camel suit.  With him is a fair-haired woman, a little worse-for-the-wear, about fifty, wearing sneakers, jeans and nerd glasses.  “Excuse me, Ms.”


“Is this yours?”  I’m confused.  He’s holding something out in his fisted hand, so I reluctantly hold out my hand to take it despite weird red flags going off in my head.  Warnings from people in smaller cities with fearful thinking based on what they’ve been told, urged, shown, manipulated to believe.  People like me.

His hand opens and into my palm lands a crumpled five-dollar bill.  I stare at it, then him, blankly.  The synapses in my brain are not processing this fast enough, so I just shake my head.  “No, no, I don’t think so.”

The woman takes over, spewing words quite quickly.  “It is.  It is yours.  You dropped it on the bus, under your seat, when you were digging in you purse.  You dropped it right there on the floor.  I saw it.  I saw him pick it up, but I never seen no one give it back before.  That’s five dollars you know.”

I knew.  Of course it was mine.  I’m prone to doing awkward, haphazard things.  I check my bag anyway because it seems like what I’m supposed to do.  The five-dollar bill I had thrown in after buying snacks on the plane is of course now clutched in my fist, given back by a stranger in a subway station, on a New York street.  Still I cannot process it.  I stare dumbly at the two people before me, a plethora of thoughts scattering in my brain “Should I let him keep it?  No.  That would be an insult.  Should I give it to the woman?  She seems quite eager.  No.  That would be an insult.  Would I have given it back?  Would I?”  I stare at the bill, question my morality, straighten it out a bit, smile and whisper, “Thank you.  This means a lot to me.”

Photographs found on The Suicidal Cactus Hour/Brenda Elaine


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