On Honesty

Some days I am disheartened but, today, I was encouraged. I was at the Fairway grocery store picking up some fruit and vegetables from the produce section when I heard someone call, “Sir.” At my age I’ve adjusted to being called “Sir.”, the same way that I’ve adjusted to looking in the mirror and seeing how little hair I have left. They both come with age. I’d been choosing three Ambrosia apples. Ambrosias were on sale for a dollar a pound.

I turned to look back toward the front of the aisle and a clerk was bending over, picking up a five dollar bill. “You dropped this,” he said, and handed me the money.
I don’t know how much a grocery clerk is paid but I doubt if it is very much. Certainly not the twenty million a year of some bankers to whom five dollars is meaningless. Since there was no one else in sight, he could have bent down, picked up the five dollar bill, slipped it into his pocket and I’d never have known what happened to the five dollars.
I thanked him. Twice. He needed to be thanked twice: once for giving me my money back and once for making me feel better about humanity.

After the apples, I looked over the onions and decided to buy a bag of red organic onions that was on sale. Most organic fruit or vegetables are more expensive than non-organic but, today, they were cheaper than the yellow onions from Washington State. I’m a slow shopper. I’m inclined to check everything over, compare prices. This is partly because I have celiac disease which means that I have to read every detail on a lable of processed food. That looking at all the details has transferred over to all my shopping.

As I inspected the bags of onions, I thought about the clerk who had returned my five dollars and that made me think of my grandfather. He didn’t have much education when he came from Ireland and, so, he got laboring jobs, first as a glazier putting in windows, then as a drayman hauling goods with a horse and wagon, then, finally, a job working for the Great Northern Railway in the Roundhouse. He stayed with that job until he retired. He never made much money. He and my grandmother managed because my grandmother was both thrifty and also talented when it came to sewing and knitting. She was an excellent gardener with a large vegetable garden. Yet, when a bank clerk gave my grandfather twenty dollars too much, my grandfather turned around and went back into the bank to return the twenty dollars. Someone said to him that the bank wouldn’t have missed the money so why didn’t he keep it? He shrugged and said, “It wasn’t mine.”

While I was examining some bananas, I looked around. You know how we don’t pay much attention to our daily life. I’m like that. I go In and out of stores, to gas stations, doctor’s offices, without paying them much heed. Fairway’s is a local grocery chain. I’ve shopped at their stores ever since I moved here in the 1970s. Someone once said it was owned by a Chinese family and, certainly, their stock of rice and various types of Chinese food are extensive. At one time all the clerks were Chinese but now it’s a mix. Then someone said the owners weren’t Chinese. It caters to working class people. Prices are good. The choices are reasonable. A lot of my fellow shoppers–there weren’t many of them at noon hour–like me, wore blue jeans, a rainproof jacket. Most wore running shoes. There are a lot of lower cost apartments and houses in the area of this Fairways . I assume that is why many of the customers were middle-aged and older men shopping by themselves.

My grandmother would have shopped here. She would have been after bargains, buying loss leaders, and if there was enough money left over after she’d bought the essentials, treating herself to some green grapes.

Many years ago, when I lived in a different neighbourhood, l dropped a chequebook on that Fairway’s parking lot. I received a phone call from the manager of the store to ask me if I’d lost a cheque book. I said I didn’t think so but I’d check and when I did, it wasn’t in my jacket pocket. He said, “Come down and pick it up. Bring ID. A customer found it and turned it in.”

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m careless. I’m not. These two incidents happened two decades apart.

As I was looking through various packages of rice, I was slower than usual because I’d started to think about the fact that the store clerk, my grandfather, probably the customer, were not rich and I realized that during my lifetime, my experience has been that poverty does not make people dishonest. Say that someone is dishonest because he is poor is a dreadful calumny against people who aren’t rich. Perhaps because even small amounts of money or belongings are hard come by, they loom large in the minds of people who live on small incomes. To them, losing five dollars or twenty dollars really matters.

When I lived in Missouri, I took my family to Silver Dollar City. This southern area of Missouri and northern Arkansas is poor. When I lived there, I realized that the Great Depression had never left. Many of the houses that people lived in were shocking. Rural incomes were low. Wages were low. Employment was hard to find. Silver Dollar City was like an huge Ozark craft fair, farmer’s market, entertainment centre. We loved it. While there, I saw a man playing a dulcimer. It was made of local walnut. I asked if I could buy one like it. He said he’d have to make it. It would take about three months. It would cost eighty dollars and he needed the money up front. I never hesitated. I handed him the money. He took my address. Three months later, take or give a few days, he knocked on my door and handed me a beautifully made instrument. No contract. Nothing but my address written down. All on a handshake. It would have never occurred to me to think, he’s poor so he’ll probably steal the money. Just the opposite.

I don’t want to diss the rich because I have known quite a few rich people during my lifetime and they have been honest. Many have been kind. Many have been generous. However, from what I read and see, it is the rich who steal. They steal from the government. They steal from the taxpayer. They steal from each other. They steal so much that the numbers become meaningless. When a poor person is caught shoplifting, they often go to jail. When someone rich is caught stealing millions, they pay a fine. I knew a store detective who once charged a teenager with stealing half a donut. No one charged executives who stole. They were quietly dismissed.

Read the papers. Read the articles about money laundering in the millions, in the mega millions. No one goes to jail. Read the articles about the stock market fraudsters. Seldom does anyone go to jail. Having lots of money means being able to hire lawyers to threaten lawsuits, to hire whole teams of lawyers to intimidate witnesses and turn criminal cases into civil ones where victims can be bought off. When someone is rich does go to jail, it is so unusual that it is news. When someone poor goes to jail, it isn’t news. It happens every day.

Five dollars. It doesn’t buy much anymore but it is still a measure of a person’s honesty.