Honesty and Dishonesty

The other day at breakfast, one of my running pals reported he had just lost his wallet. Nothing unusual there as it has happened to many of us.  However, we all commiserated with him knowing how frustrating it is to cancel and replace all your credit cards, driver’s license and health insurance cards. The loss of money is usually secondary unless, of course, you’ve just cashed your pay check. 

What a headache, or so we thought.  Instead our friend stoically proclaimed, “I am not going to do anything for one day as I want to test the honesty of my fellow New Yorkers and see if someone returns my wallet.”  “Good luck,“ someone in the group snickered, probably me.

Therein ensued a torrent of tales from others around the table about how they and their friends had either lost or found wallets.  One friend recounted a bizarre story about how his wife found a wallet in the back seat of a taxi one afternoon just as she pulled up to their apartment.  Turns out it belonged to their next store neighbors’ adult daughter, someone they had met only once before when she was a little girl living next door.  All our friend’s wife had to do was waltz the wallet across the hall to her neighbors’ apartment.  A serendipitous find, for sure. What struck me odd, however, is that for all the years they had lived next to this family, they had only seen their daughter one time!

One story led to another.  Here’s one which always makes us laugh, no matter how many times we hear it.  Two New Yorkers were on an unusually crowded subway on their way home from work.  The train’s doors opened and in walked an impeccably dressed, young businessman with a newspaper under his arm.  He managed to squeeze in right next to the two friends and immediately made eye contact with them. They noticed the young man appeared visibly upset about something.  As the train made its way to the next station, the distressed passenger slowly and rather dramatically started to quietly sob while holding tightly onto the strap and furtively looking around to see if anyone was noticing.  He turned to one of the two friends who was curiously taking in the scene.  Blowing his nose in his handkerchief, the young man explained that someone had just stolen his wallet. He desperately needed money to get back to his home in New Jersey.  Thirty dollars would suffice.  Naturally, he would fully reimburse the monies lent to him.  As the young man continued to sniffle and nervously rock from one foot to the next, the man closest to him, pulled out his wallet, gave him a $10 bill and said. “I don’t believe a word of your story, but I sure did enjoy the performance!”

Another story recounted at breakfast was told to our group many years earlier by Bob, a lawyer friend of ours and fellow runner.  Bob had just acquired a new client who he wanted to impress.  When he heard that his client’s newly leased BMW had been stolen the day before, Bob told him with total confidence and an ounce or two of New York lawyer arrogance, “Don’t worry.  I’ll take care of it.” He asked his client for his car phone number and proceeded to call it.  (This was before the era of cell phones.) The thief answered immediately.  Bob explained that if the car was returned, his client would not press charges and even offer a small reward. It took a Nano second for the car thief to respond.  He replied indignantly, “Hey man, I tried that once before and it didn’t work out for me.”  The car was never seen again.

Not everyone has the same sense of values.  For some, stealing is a way of life.  For others, especially young children, there is the natural thrill of getting away with it. I recently read about a study at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, which focused on childhood behavior.  They found that some four-year-olds lied once every two hours whereas some six-year-olds gathered speedy by lying every 90 minutes.  The study claimed that typically, lying peaks between the ages of six and ten.  With one big (Presidential) exception, once kids get older and start understanding the consequences of dishonestly, not to mention getting caught at it, the practice sharply diminishes.

 I wondered how children learn to be honest. How do they overcome the temptation of lying to get something they want? Are they taught this by their parents?  Do they learn this in nursery school or at their place of worship?  Do they pick it up by observing others around them?  A combination of all of the above? Never having had kids, I decided to query Sara, one of my friends with two grown children. ”How did you build moral character in your children and teach them the difference between being dishonest and telling the truth,” I asked?

Sara thought pensively for a moment, then recollecting an incident started to quietly giggle to herself. I asked what was so funny.  She grinned widely and proceeded to tell me a story about her son, George.   At about twelve years old, she noticed he was starting to “pork up.”  As her son had always been tall and lean, she thought this a bit strange then remembered that her younger brother had also started filling out around the same age.  Then, one day she got a call from George.  He was calling from a local Red Apple supermarket on the westside of New York. George sheepishly explained in a trembling voice that he had been picked up for shoplifting.  Sara was incredulous as George had never exhibited any signs of “deviant” behavior before outside of the normal naughty stuff pre-teen boys do.

“So, what were you stealing in the supermarket,” she inquired trying to keep her voice steady and stern?  His reply, “Cake mix, Mom.  The guys and I have been stealing mixes and making cakes at one of our friend’s apartment.  His mom works.”  So, that’s explained his sudden added girth.  George then pleaded desperately, “Mom, the store manager has us locked up in the basement.  Can you come and get us out of here?  Pleeeeze, Mom!”  When George got home, Sara asked him what he learned from this experience.  His reply, “Ah, Mom.  It was awful.  That manager really freaked me out when he locked us up in the dark, dank, filthy basement and threatened to call the cops.  I’ll never steal anything again, Mom. Promise.”

Dishonesty is a way of life with some people, sometimes even a form of livelihood.  I remembered many years ago seeing a man in Paris—a Roma—who had picked up from the sidewalk what appeared to be a gold ring.  He presented it to me and asked, “Did your husband lose his wedding ring?” I responded “no,” but the man insisted that I pay him something if he gave me the ring.  Fast forward, and I’ve seen the same routine on every subsequent trip to Paris.  Now, it makes me laugh and usually the person trying to pull off the scam will look askance with a sly expression on their face communicating in a non-verbal way, “Guess I can’t fool that one!”

So back to my friend who lost his wallet and insisted on waiting a day to prove a point. The following morning, he called to tell me that a taxi driver had just returned his wallet.  At 9 AM sharp my friend received a phone call in his office from a Bangladeshi driver. He knew where he was from as the driver proudly informed him.  When my friend profusely thanked the driver—who had found his business card in his wallet—he heard back, “Don’t thank me, thank Allah.  You should read in the Quran about how important it is to be honest.” 

The taxi driver arranged to meet my friend curbside in front of his office building.  My friend gratefully paid the fare on the meter, then handed the driver an extra $50.00 reward.  “See, I told you,” he replied over the phone to me very proud that his initial instinct had been rewarded. “I believe in the goodness of New Yorkers. Of course, there are bottom-feeders amongst any large population.  However, despite our apparent hard shell, we New Yorkers are overwhelmingly honest.  As we’ve seen in difficult situations such as the great blackout in 2003 and 9/11, New Yorkers rise to the occasion and do the right thing.“

As cynical as I might be, I also agree that most people are inherently honest.  That said, one of my favorite sayings is from Mark Twain, that wonderfully witty and wise man whose work we all admire.  He once said, If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” Well said, Mr. Twain!