8 Million Stories: Do or D.A.R.E.

Written by Pauline Tran on . Posted in 8 Million Stories, Posts.


WHEN
I FIRST moved to New York City with my boyfriend, Tamas, our adopted
mantra was, “If you can make it in New York City, you can make it
anywhere.” Fresh out of college, both with a bachelor’s degree in
English, we set lofty goals for ourselves to publish our poetry in
prestigious journals, start a band that gained a local but loyal
following and eventually make our livings by making our art.

Instead,
I got a job working for a hospital in the Bronx writing articles on
obesity, safe sex and the importance of breastfeeding for a population
hit by poverty, homicide and drug abuse. Tamas got a job as a bus boy at
a fancy Belgian restaurant in the Flatiron, where he carted away tubs
of smelly shellfish as his managers snarled at him in desire and
revulsion.

Half-heartedly,
we joked about following in the footsteps of Langston Hughes and
wondered: If and when you survive the ravages of living in New York
City, how much of yourself do you really have left?

Take
honesty, for example. In a city like this one, where you work and pay
more for everything that you enjoy, it’s especially tempting to “sample”
gummy worms from the candy store, or movie hop when a single ticket can
cost over $12. As a child, I remember learning about honesty through
the D.A.R.E. program at our elementary school. “What do you do if you
find a wallet on the street?” asked the pudgy cop. “Do you turn it in to
the proper authorities with cash and credit cards intact, or go and buy
yourself something nice?” That invaluable lesson vaguely floated
through my mind as I knelt down to pick up a grimy dollar outside our
tiny, one-bedroom apartment. The only other apartment on the floor
belonged to a cellist who was never around because he toured with the
emo-rock band Evanescence. “He must be back in town,” I thought as I
stuffed the dirty bill into my pocket, planning to spend it on a
chocolate chip cookie from Bird Bath Bakery. Unabashedly, I devoured the
tainted sweets and ended up feeling guiltier about the calorie count
than stealing from a fellow artist.

Months
passed with more chances to redeem myself. I found another dollar or
two in our hallway, which I nonchalantly kept and considered good
luck—until one day I found a crumpled five-dollar bill on the steps.

“Blood
money!” I scowled as I threw the sullied greenback to Tamas. He
sheepishly smiled. The guilt was starting to pile up, but instead of
politely knocking on our neighbor’s door to ask if he had dropped some
money, we ended up spending it on scoops at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.
Amidst creamy licks of taro and pumpkin pie, I was able and willing to
forget the moral dilemma.

Eventually,
our neighbor was evicted for not paying over $3,000 in rent. Movers
threw out his couch and his meager belongings, but left his old mattress
sitting outside the back of our building. We watched it mold and sag
from our bedroom window through spring and into summer, when it was
finally removed, along with all traces of the wandering musician and his
misplaced bills.

Relieved,
I went about unperturbed, saving loose change to fund my sweet tooth
until a few weeks later when I was put to the test again. Only this
time, the stakes were higher.

“P!”
shouted Tamas as he rode up the escalator in the massive six-floored
Barnes & Noble at Union Square. He pointed down beside me where two
orphaned $20 bills lay helplessly on the ground. I looked around for any
sign of an owner, but saw only strangers bustling by stately columns
and the New Fiction section. So I crouched down to snatch up the booty
before wildly motioning for Tamas to come back. Waiting for him to ride
down the escalator, I giddily thought to myself, “20 bucks each!” But
then my conscience nagged.

I
thought of that smug D.A.R.E. cop sporting his hip holster and
hypothetical question, and it occurred to me that I may have somehow
been responsible for the evicted cellist who was probably in handcuffs.
“I hate dealing with these things,” I said when we reconvened, and
reluctantly stuffed the cash into Tamas’s hands.

“We’ll
just give it to the Customer Service desk and leave our information,”
he assured me. “If they don’t find the owner, then we’ll get it, right?”
The happy outcome seemed doubtful and B&N would most likely keep
the cash. But I followed Tamas to the help desk anyways.

“Thank
you,” said the clerk, slightly baffled, after we explained the
situation. “That’s very honest of you.” We watched him take the money
and seal it in an envelope with the acute sense that an opportunity had
presented itself and we naively let it go.

Walking
through the Union Square Greenmarket, I eyed the homemade cookies and
overpriced peaches that I could have bought with $40 until I realized
that money couldn’t buy me an easy night’s sleep. After living in New
York City for two years, I’d like to think that I could make it anywhere
with my integrity still intact and my D.A.R.E. badge only slightly
tarnished.

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