Today in the rush to escape the crowded elevator at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, I lost track of a brown sling bag which contains: My laptop, my DSLR, 2 smartphones, a kindle, and an I-pod. All told, about two grand worth of gear, as well as my lifelines to our group, and to home. By the time I left the station – and the exit is less than 50 meters from the elevator – I knew it was gone. I retraced my steps and looked into the glass elevator and then scanned the terminal for some opportunistic Artful Dodger carrying his trophy away to Fagin’s lair. Then I visited the lost-and-found department to fill out a report with contact information lest the bag be found. I don’t know if the clerk spoke English or not but he didn’t need to. His rueful nod and arched eyebrow would mean the same in any language: Fat chance.
I didn’t have time to tarry. Our group was gathered outside with their luggage and I needed to buy tram tickets and get us all to the hotel. There, I would begin the huge hassle of cancelling phone accounts and bank cards because even though my laptop is password-protected my phones are not and it is possible that my cc info is saved in the Amazon app and who knows where else. Then I would need to find a burner phone for the rest of the trip and … Ugh. A whole day lost along with the bag and the gear.
Just as Bob and I stowed our suitcases and prepared to rush back to the station (figuring that since more time had elapsed since the loss, someone might have turned in my bag) his phone rang. It was my wife, Gina. At about 6 a.m. EST a woman had used one of my phones to call Gina to let her know she had a bag that apparently belonged to a Michael Dillon and would like to arrange to return it. (She knew she’d reached someone’s wife, the woman told me later, “because she answered, ‘Hello Darling.’”)
I called the woman – her name is Joanna – immediately and she explained she had found the bag but, given its valuable contents, did not trust to leave it with the police. I thanked her profusely. Where, I asked, could I meet her to pick it up? She asked the address of my hotel and when I told her she said, “I have an appointment at 2 but I am on my bike and could ride over and give it to you. 15 minutes.”
If a stranger has ever done me a greater kindness than Joanna did today I can’t recall it.
When I was waiting outside the hotel for Joanna to arrive, my students filed out in two groups, heading for the Anne Frank house. Called to mind were that poor young woman’s hauntingly optimistic words: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart.” I am not conflating Joanna’s kind act with the enormity of Anne Frank’s situation, but consider the context: Europe has just lived through 2 (and now, with the disappearance of EgyptAir 804, maybe 3) terror attacks in the past six months. The sight of an unattended bag at a train station or airport evokes a pang of fear here or in the U.S. We know what can happen. Getting “involved,” as we say, is no picnic and could well plunge a Good Samaritan into some Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare (Joanna did not give the bag to the police because, “once I found a wallet with 400 Euros and gave it to the police and eventually discovered the people got the wallet back but it was empty.”) Besides, she had a busy day and a looming appointment – and yet she set out to pedal the 4 kilometers from Centraal Station to my hotel on Overtoom to return my bag, which as you can imagine was quite heavy. Big good, little good. It’s all good.
A short time later Joanna, a woman of about 40, glided to the curb on a pink bicycle with flower decals. I thanked her and told her she was a wonderful person and gave her a big hug. Then Bob, who is bigger, gave her a bigger hug. She asked me to describe the contents of the bag and when I did she handed it over. I tried to press 50 Euros into her palm for her time and trouble but she laughed and declined. “Go spend it on some good beer,” she said.
I tried again, but she gently pushed my hand away. “No, no,” she said. “A kindness is not for money.”
“I come from a little town in the south of Belgium. I have lived here for 10 years. This city is bigger than where I grew up … people are harder.” She crossed her arms over her chest, holding herself close. “I have tried to carry with me, to keep, what I learned from my parents: to be friendly. They taught me that if you try to do good things, good things will happen for you, too. And it’s true.”
And she pedaled off.
I would be false like Peter in the courtyard of Caiaphas if I omitted the following coda:
Not too long ago I decided to let go of trying to manage, massage and manipulate every contingency of every day. It’s exhausting and ultimately futile. Tentatively, I turned to God to ask for help in distinguishing what He is in charge of, and what I am in charge of. After a lapse of many, many years I began to attend a church. I didn’t make a big deal of any of it and told no one besides my wife and daughters and a few friends … just oh, by the way. A few were dumbfounded. One old buddy from carousing days sidled away exaggeratedly (“In case lightning strikes”). Another friend told me he was surprised someone as intelligent as me could believe in God. That’s okay. Others’ beliefs are not my business. And I’ve not felt compelled to shout about mine. Nor am I wandering the capitals of Europe in robe and sandals. Still, since it feels relevant today, there is no reason to be silent, either.
Since I took that step towards faith and letting go, I feel better, I sleep more soundly and I don’t sweat the small stuff … or even, usually, the big stuff. Had today’s mishap occurred a few years ago I would have remained outwardly composed, but inwardly I would have been seething and reproaching and searching for that moment I could have made a different choice and avoided the whole thing – while silently mouthing profanities. When I noticed my bag was missing today I had that sudden sinking feeling in my stomach that we all know but after a moment, while disappointed, I felt relatively at peace. As I checked my students into the hotel, anxious to complete the process and return to the station, I told myself, “This is not in your hands. Do your best to get your stuff back, but if you don’t, you don’t. You’ve had a lot of good fortune in your life. Everybody gets a bad break once in a while.”
Then the phone rang.