by Joshua H. Liberatore
When you think about it, there’s so little that’s asked of us as citizens on a day-to-day basis. Sure, we vote enthusiastically every four years (and a few of us more often than that), we pay our taxes (hoping for sizable refunds), we try to obey most traffic laws (within reason). Since we rely on an all-volunteer army these days, we don’t even live with the once ominous responsibility to carry spears for our nation, as even our parents’ generation did. By any standard, whether historical or in comparison with many other places, the demands of being an American today are very modest indeed. Under such circumstances, it’s understandable perhaps if we occasionally look for and seize opportunities to participate, in ever so small ways, in acts of what we might call, sarcastically, as you’ll see, “heightened” citizenship. But quite often the results disappoint, leading us back into routine complacence, at least until the next invitation arises.
I offer two recent anecdotes as examples. A few weeks I ago, I discovered a dropped wallet when I was riding my bike through the neighborhood. It was loaded with cash and various forms of picture identification, multiple credit and debit cards, even a Social Security card. An unscrupulous man might have taken out a mortgage in this poor guy’s name, as a friend of mine joked. To summarize the four-day saga, despite all the personal information it contained, I couldn’t find an active phone number for the owner, a Frenchman by the name of Arnaud Dupoizat who seemed to be an employee of the World Bank of all places, so I called his credit card company. A supervisor instructed me to bring the wallet to the nearest police station, but I insisted that Dupoizat be called and informed, because I knew that once I delivered it into the hands of DC’s finest, the wallet would be sucked into a bureaucratic vortex of misplaced paperwork and gross inefficiency.
And I was right, sort of. I took it in to my neighborhood police station, and luckily, the officer on duty was nice and left me her badge number and the report reference number so that I could keep tabs on the case. Meanwhile, I continued to try to track down Dupoizat on my own, with no luck. The available addresses of record led me to two condo buildings, one impenetrable with no security desk and no phone directory, the other presided over by a half-witted security guard who claimed he had no way to determine who lived in the building. I left my name and number anyway, with a brief note for Monsieur Dupoizat. During these investigations, I was also making twice-daily calls to the police department but never seemed to catch old Officer Long, whose 12am to 6am shift did not jive well with my middle-aged bedtimes. Finally, one evening I reached another rather honest officer who admitted that I would have been better off delivering the wallet myself and that “returned property” usually sits for years until picked up. Years. I told him that I had tried to reach Dupoizat but to no avail, and perhaps he was suggesting that I would have been better off pocketing the $135 and destroying the rest of the contents? I suspect I eventually bothered the original Officer Long’s colleagues enough that they gave her the message. She left a voicemail later that night to the effect that Arnaud had picked up the wallet about five minutes after I had dropped it off that fateful Saturday night! Thank you, private sector.
The instance reminded me of two previous occasions when I had returned lost property, once a driver’s license to Puerto Rican man in Chicago, whom a friend and I tracked down on foot and with whom we tried our best to communicate. We were rewarded with a few mumbles and a stony, straight face. Then there was the time in Madison, WI, when my brother found a very large certified check (in excess of $3,000), and unable to locate the owner, returned it to the issuing bank across town, again to bland acknowledgment. After my encounter with the Dupoizat wallet, I was left with that same familiar feeling of practical satisfaction but vague moral discontent that I now associate with good citizenship. Why is that? Do I object to anonymous acts of good will? Do I require gratitude, compensation, even formal recognition of my attempts at basic altruism? In the absence of such markers of closure, will I be less motivated in the future to do right by my fellow man?
Another neighborhood incident, this one just yesterday, provides a different perspective, I think, on the sort of mild disappointment I am trying to describe, and because it does not involve property or money, I submit that it gets closer to the core of the experience in question. Walking from the metro yesterday evening, as I neared my apartment building, I witnessed an altercation in the brewing stages. Apparently, a cyclist had nearly hit a pedestrian carrying some dry-cleaning, and they were exchanging hot words on the subject, still from the distance provided by a dense column of parked cars. The cyclist, tall and wiry, dismounted his bike with marked hostility, flipped down his kick stand with a vigor that amused me (kick stands amuse me), and brandished his heavy U-lock in support of the mumbled insults that were issuing from both men. I slowly crossed the street, walked toward the men, and saw two waiters from the adjacent restaurant do the same. By the time we reached the men, they were scuffling on the sidewalk in close embrace. I had seen the cyclist raise the U-lock in a sort of fake-out threat but the pedestrian, short and stocky but clearly stronger, had restrained his arm, tumbling to the pavement in the process, now both of them in a twisted mass of absurd flesh, while happy hour enthusiasts sipped pinot grigio perhaps eight feet away and looked on in frozen horror.
As the two waiters caught up with the contorted shapes and reached over the short fence to try to separate them, I busied myself with relieving the cyclist of his improvised weapon, a very blunt instrument capable of much harm. In tacit concert that combined applied force and mollifying talk, the three of us gradually detached both the men and the weapon. As they dusted themselves off and seemed to cool down, I asked, instinctively, “Are you all right?” as I handed the U-lock back to the sweating cyclist, whose mouth dripped a bestial sort of slobber, fruits of his great passion. The aggrieved pedestrian shot me a look: “Why are you asking him if he’s all right? This guy almost ran me over, then came after me with a bike lock.” Was I playing the principal, passing judgment, siding with the weak kid? Was I arbitrating? “Actually, I was talking to both of you. You both need to calm down.” Apparently, the interruption in fighting only allowed them to continue trading epithets, those from the cyclist becoming sharply racial (oddly, he seemed confident that the pedestrian was Italian – were we in Brooklyn, circa 1956?). Even as the cyclist returned to his parked bike in the street (regrettably, that kick stand hadn’t held), the rhetoric continued from both sides, us referees shifting in our expressions from worry to disgust, as a wave of collective embarrassment washed over the happy hour crowd and other passers-by.
The shouting continued. Our interference did not. We walked away, they to their duties in the restaurant, I slowly to my doorstep, but not without glancing back, still curious, to the tenuous aftermath that could easily convert into fresh combat, silly as it was to begin with. The incident had upset me, but not for the obvious reasons of having witnessed an otherwise civilized corner of a cosmopolitan city transmogrify, however briefly, into a scene of unquestionable barbarity, and certainly not due to once again receiving neither thanks nor scant mention for a show of something more than indifference to a private mishap becoming public plight in broad day. Had justice been delivered? Had a modicum of peace and safety been restored? Even though I did not witness and could not reconstruct the source of the offense, I feel pretty sure the cyclist was far out of line, perhaps even deranged, if not actually on drugs. But meting out demerits was never my concern, nor did the trivialities of assigning blame trouble the waiters, whose main objective was to clear the scene on behalf of their customers. Rather, I think that what bothered me was the childish way in which the pedestrian rebuked me with his arrogant assumption that I was interested in anything more sophisticated that preventing bloodshed. I was not, after all, arbitrating. Just as returning a lost wallet or a dropped cashier’s check was no exercise in restorative justice, merely a pragmatic gesture, no more heroic than refilling the toilet paper or replenishing the paper tray in the office printer, becoming in the end an errand no more gratifying than these daily overtures in basic housekeeping and orderliness.
Obviously, I have no wish to intellectualize these two fairly mundane experiences in blasé 21st century American citizenship. And I am sure that I will engage in many more such acts of general maintenance before my time is up, or at least before I become a grumpy old man content to let the world go to hell before his eyes on the strength of the memory that it wasn’t always that way and indeed need not be if people would just do their part. I hope I do anyway. I don’t mean to suggest that I wasted my time in either case. I believe that in most cases, we act only because we must, not because we expect either reward or recognition. Most of our motivation has to come from within, since otherwise, we’d stand around waiting for our good works to be properly noticed, eventually giving up. Something else must compel us. If not, what can citizenship or any other kind of outward-looking service be expected to signify, in this benighted age or any other.