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The Column: Lesson in irony costs 20 bucks and a little self-respect

O. Henry’s famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” tells of a wife who sells her beautiful hair to buy her husband a platinum chain for his pocket watch and a husband who sells the watch to buy his wife bejeweled combs for her hair.

Surprise, irony, a twist of fate — great stuff for fiction and classic O. Henry.

How about real life?

It is one perilous step toward the psychiatrist’s office when you see yourself as a character in someone else’s narrative but I, too, had a little encounter with surprise, irony and fate a few days ago down by the boat launch.

Heading into the final stretch of my daily walk and deeply engrossed in another political podcast, I spotted a $20 bill on the pavement.

Holy cow, a $20?

A bit of perspective here.

Though a lucky guy in many ways, I am perhaps the most woeful performer in the history of easy money.

I could scratch off a hundred Win for Life tickets and get nothing but dirty fingernails. When numbers are drawn from a hat, mine always goes unannounced. At the Congregational church Christmas raffle, I can’t score so much as a fruitcake.  

So Andrew Jackson staring at me from a 20-spot the street? Wow.

I stood over the bill for a while as if it might suddenly speak or dart away like a field mouse. If anyone had seen me, they would have thought I was practicing mindfulness or — given my bafflement — trying to remember the way home.  

At last, I bent to pick up the bill.

It was crisp and new, folded in half.

I looked up and down the street on the chance someone was running back to make claim. Nothing doing.

Nearby, there was a fellow bringing his boat out of the water. I asked if he’d lost anything and pointed to the spot where I found the bill.

“No,” he said. “But, thanks.”

I took a couple steps in one direction then the other.  

Keep the money or leave it behind?

Anchored by indecision, I did the only sensible thing.

I called my wife.

“What do you think?” I asked on the cellphone.

“Oh,” said Wink, my wife, sighing in a fashion consistent with 56 years of marriage. “I suppose you should put it back because if you don’t you’ll never stop worrying about it, and we’ll both be nuts by dinner.”

“That’s what I think, too,” I said. “Remember Astoria.”

This related to an episode years ago when we lived in the city.

Wink and I were visiting with an old pal, Stanley, who uses a wheelchair to get around, and headed out for some primo Queens pizza in our Volkswagen camper.  

After lunch, Wink put her purse on the pavement to help our pal into the VW. I handled the wheelchair.

Away we went to buy Stanley a pair of sneakers for his birthday at a shop on Steinway Street. When it came time to pay, Wink gasped. “Where’s my bag?”

Aw, nuts: On the sidewalk!

I paid for Stanley’s sneakers, and we hustled back.

And — what do you know? — there it was, Wink’s purse, untouched for half an hour, in the middle of a city sidewalk, people parting ways to avoid it as they hurried along.  

Wink checked the bag: Nothing missing, not even her peppermints. I wanted to yell, “Hey, everybody who thinks New York is nothing but a hustle, how about this?”

Now, on my phone, I heard Wink say: “Exactly, Astoria. Put the $20 back.”

That’s what I did — returned the bill to where I found it.

The story’s not quite over.

A day earlier, I took $100 out of the ATM. The five $20s were so fresh you could smell the ink.

“You say the bill you found was new?” Wink asked at dinner.

“Crisp, clean and folded.”

“Folded?”

“In half.”

“Oh, really? Sort of the way you do it?”

“Sort of.”

Wink smiled. I gulped.

Did I drop one of my crisp $20s while passing the boat launch, maybe taking the phone from my pocket to switch podcasts, and spot the bill on the way back? Did I then — beyond belief — return my own 20 bucks to the street?

“Possible, right?” Wink said.

I’m hoping that if I donated $20 to a stranger, the stranger needed it, or maybe bought a little something for a special person or, anyway, had a better day.

Possible? As O. Henry asks: What isn’t?

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