Did you know that a lot of people lose their lives in the final moments of a rescue, when a happy ending seems assured? With a lifeline within reach, they think they're out of danger and lower their guard, only to be swept away by the raging waters all around.
Okay, well that's an overly dramatic metaphor for what happened to me when I was returning my rental car to the Denver airport last Sunday afternoon, but it comes to mind because I had been in nervous-wreck mode throughout my trip to Colorado for my nephew's wedding, in a semi-panic about driving in unfamiliar places. My fears turned out to be unfounded, the drive turned out to be easy, and I somehow managed to make it all the way back to the car rental place without getting lost or breaking down, feeling as triumphant upon arrival as an astronaut back from the moon. After turning in to the gate at the correct car rental place and driving over those scary spikes that look like they're going to shred your tires but magically retract at the last moment, I soon found myself being motioned forward by two tall, handsome young black men to a spot where they gestured for me to stop. That was it. I was safe. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and felt the bliss of at last relinquishing control. I had not died or killed anybody.
There's a lot of pressure at these car return places to hurry up and get out of the way because of the long line of cars driven by people worried about missing their flights. I myself did not need to hurry because I was headed to an airport hotel before flying out early the next day, but I was affected by the frenzied atmosphere, the slamming doors and shouted instructions. I felt rushed. I scooped up my handbag and carry-on bag from the passenger seat, and then sprang from the car to open the trunk and get out my suticase. "Do I need to do anything else?" I asked the guys, and they said, "No, you're good," so I shouldered my bags and rolled my suitcase over to the curb, where a shuttle bus was waiting to take us customers to the terminal. My plan was to be dropped off at ground transportation and take another shuttle bus to my hotel.
I was the first to board the bus, and the driver approached me and asked me something I didn't understand. He was a bald, athletically built Hispanic guy who seemed to be in his mid-thirties. "Do you have your cellphone and wallet?" he said again, and I wondered why he was asking such a thing. Do cellphones and wallets pose some kind of security risk? "Yeees," I answered hesitantly, and he explained he was just asking because so many people leave such items behind when returning their cars. Huh, I thought, how could anyone leave stuff like that behind? I am constantly checking all around me to see whether I have everything, especially my passport, money, and cellphone, items that if I were to lose would cause a big delay in my journey back to Japan.
But then, after finally arriving at my hotel and approaching the front desk to check in, I glanced down at my bags and sensed that something was missing. How was that possible, especially after I had just been congratulating myself for being so vigilant? Hadn't I had more stuff when I started out that morning? What had I lost? I had my handbag, my carry-on and my suitcase. Then I realized--it was my coat! There was a vacant space where I had been draping my coat over my suitcase, threading the sleeves through the metal bars of the roller extensions. And the moment I realized that I had forgotten my coat, I knew exactly where it was--in the rental car, on the floor of the passenger side. I remembered that when turning onto the highway out of the parking lot of the Best Western way back up in the mountains, my coat had slipped off the front passenger seat and onto the floor. I had driven all the way to the airport without stopping, so there was no chance I had left the coat anywhere along the way. It was warmer in Denver than it had been high up in the mountains, and I was wearing a heavy sweater, so I didn't feel cold when exiting the car or walking to the shuttle, and that's why I didn't notice right away that I no longer had my coat.
My immediate thought was that my coat was gone forever and there was no use trying to get it back. I've been rather fatalistic all my life, and it has been my bad habit to believe that there are problems without solutions, and even when there is a solution, I've often shrugged and said what's the use. (I used to unravel or throw away sewing and knitting projects, for example, when it was too much trouble to correct my mistakes.) Anyway, I thought, it was just a coat, not my passport or wallet or anything hard to replace, so would it really be worth it to take all the time to ride all those shuttle buses and try to get it back? Since I had to be at the airport so early the next morning, wouldn't it be better just to lie on my bed and read a book, get an early dinner, and then go to bed at sundown? But then I remembered that I was trying to change and become a better, more confident person, it was only four thirty in the afternoon, the shuttle buses were running every fifteen minutes, and I would see myself as spoiled, negligent, and lazy if I did not try to get back my coat—a Lands' End dark blue fleece parka purchased only a year earlier for a hundred dollars, stylish and not yet even slightly pilled. I should not abandon the coat so easily.
So after checking in, I deposited my luggage in my room and telephoned the number stamped on the car rental agreement, which was the toll-free nationwide number. I explained the situation, and the young man on the line told me not to worry. It was their policy that whenever anything was left behind in a returned car, it was immediately taken to Lost and Found. If I just went back to where I'd left the car, my coat would be returned to me. There should be no problem at all, especially as I had completed the transaction less than two hours before. So with abundant optimism, I got back on the hotel shuttle and switched at the airport to the rental car shuttle, the very same one I had been on earlier, with the very same driver, who gave me a puzzled look. I told him my story. I was the lone passenger, so he kindly drove me right to the lot where the cars were being processed and asked if I saw my car amongst the huge fleet stretching into the distance.
"Yes," I replied, "it's that gold Hyundai in the middle of the fourth row over there next to the fence."
"Okay," he said, and approached a young Hispanic woman who was observing from nearby. The two spoke Spanish for a moment, she shook her head somberly, and he told me the car had already been processed and as far as the young woman knew, nothing had been found inside.
"You should ask at the front desk," she advised me in English. So I handed the shuttle bus driver a tip to say thanks and entered the building, where I recognized the manager who had helped me a few days earlier when I was picking up the car. He was of Asian heritage, he had told me when learning I had traveled all the way from Japan, in the way American people so often do, sharing their life stories with strangers they'll never meet again. The manager's name was Willard, and he remembered me from the day I picked up the car, because we had stood talking for a long time before I chose which car I wanted to take from Row C. He had told me he was planning a trip to Japan and asked me a good place to buy robot toys for his sons. Here I was a few days later, telling him about my missing coat and the attendant’s report that there had been no sign of it in the car.
Willard escorted me over to a different building where lost and found items were kept. On the second floor in a dusty back room, he showed me five or six ratty items hanging on a rack, items that seemed to have been there for years.
"My coat's not here," I said.
"Oh, that's too bad," said Willard, and we walked back over to the main building. Willard then called someone on the lot to find out if anyone had found a coat. He spoke into a walkie-talkie type device, so I could hear it when the person on the line irritably replied, "I ain’t seen no coat and I was supposed to be outta here ten minutes ago!"
"You can go now," Willard said into the walkie-talkie.
And then he turned to me. "Let's go take a look at the car."
By this time, I had pretty much figured out that I was not going to get my coat back, so I said, "No, no, that won't be necessary," but someone had driven the car up to the side of the building, and Willard wanted me to look inside. He opened the car door, I went through the ritual of inspecting the interior, saw the empty floor on the passenger side, and said in a conclusive tone, "Thanks very much for all your help, Willard. It’s clear that my coat is gone."
"Do you want to fill out the paperwork and have us send it to you in Japan if it's found?" asked Willard. "I'm afraid you'll have to pay the shipping fee, though."
I had a vision of what had happened to my coat, and I was at peace with what I saw. There was no doubt in my mind that I had left it behind in the car. So what seemed clear was that someone on the cleanup crew quickly inspected the coat, deemed it worth keeping (unlike those moth-eaten relics I'd been shown in Lost and Found), and assuming that whatever customer had left it behind in the car was already on a flight to who-knows-where and was very unlikely to come back, had confiscated it, either for her own personal use or to give to her mother or sister. Whoever took my coat, I thought, most likely did not see him- or herself as stealing, and my reappearance on the scene put him or her in an impossible situation. He or she could not suddenly come forward and say, "I took the coat. It's in my car. I'll go get it." There was no way whoever took my coat could return it without incriminating him or herself and perhaps being fired.
"No thanks," I said to Willard. We stood there in silence for an awkward moment. "I’ll skip the paper work."
Willard was visibly relieved. I could have asked him to confront his employees to find out who had taken my coat. I could have threatened to write a letter to company headquarters and complain about the Denver branch. I could have made a scene and taken up a whole lot more of his time. But I was not angry or upset or even very disappointed.
"Was it an expensive coat?" Willard asked quietly, after he knew I would not be taking any action. I sensed this was his way of showing sympathy. He never questioned my version of events, but there had been not been even the slightest acknowledgment of responsibility on his part. Maybe he had been trained not to apologize, because to do so would have been to admit guilt and be forced to take action.
I didn't know how to answer his question. "Expensive" is a relative term. I have never bought anything that I paid so much money for that it would break me to lose it, but I knew that for many, a hundred-dollar coat might be expensive. But by then, the cost had become irrelevant. I had shifted my thinking, trying to turn my mistake into something positive by hoping my small loss could be someone else's small gain. I hoped my coat would keep someone warm and comfortable in the cold winter months to come, and that she would agree with my taste and feel pretty when wearing it. I had not planned to give the coat away, but it was gone, and I did not mind losing it if I could imagine that whoever ended up using it needed it more than I did. I couldn’t say this to Willard, though, because I didn't want to call any of his employees a thief.
"I'll just say I wanted to keep the coat," I finally answered. "That's why I came back to get it."
"I see," Willard said quietly.
"But I’m letting it go," I assured him. "Anyway, it was my mistake. This whole thing is my own fault for being careless and leaving the coat in the car." I knew I was saying aloud what Willard had privately thought but out of politeness had left unsaid. I let out a little laugh and turned to leave. "Thanks for your time."
When I was just about to push open the glass door, Willard called out, "No!" Employees and customers looked up from their screens and phones. It seemed Willard had something more to say, an afterthought. I waited. "It's not your fault!” he assured me in a loud, clear voice. “It's the weather's fault!"
And I thought that was absolutely the wisest, best thing he could have said.
P.S. I specify "black," "Hispanic," "Asian" and other (no whites in this story) because to me it makes the scene easier to visualize. i love details. I live in an extremely racially homogeneous country (Japan), where on the surface everybody looks and acts the same. It is thrilling to go back to the US and experience the rich, colorful tapestry of the multitudes of people there.