Four different credit and bank cards; an International press card; a health insurance card and a gym membership card; a monthly MetroCard for the New York subway; a couple of prepaid international phone cards – probably expired; thirty-two dollars in cash. In the inside pocket, my Italian driver’s license and a tiny piece of paper from a Chinese fortune cookie with the prophecy, “your ideals are well within your reach.”
This is what my wallet contained on Wednesday night. Nothing irreplaceable, but it would have involved many time-consuming and unnerving phone calls to block the credit cards and get them re-issued. For sure, the most difficult item to replace would have been the Italian driver’s license. I still remember when, years ago, Umberto Eco, the Italian sociologist and writer, got robbed while abroad. It took him many long months of research and calling friends in high places to get the Italian bureaucracy to replace his “patente di guida” with a temporary certificate that allowed him to drive. In fact, it was only after he described the ordeal in his column for the Italian weekly publication, L’Espresso, that he finally managed to get a replacement license.
But none of this was on my mind when, at four a.m. Thursday night, somebody started to press the buzzer of our apartment on the Upper West Side in New York. Once. Twice. Three times, before I realized that the buzz was not part of a dream. Annoyed, I trudged to the intercom in our front hall, convinced that somebody was pressing the wrong apartment number or randomly hitting numbers as a prank. We did not expect anyone at four o’clock in the morning.
My wife and I had a charming niece visiting us from Europe, and we had celebrated my wife’s birthday at a nice restaurant in Chinatown the night before. So we had gone to bed late. I was in a comatose state when I picked up the speaker and said hello.
I do not remember what the answer was. But I heard the words “cab” and “wallet” and “woman.”
“I am not a woman,” I said to the unknown face I saw on the video screen speaking to me from out doorstep 6 floors below. I was about to hang up when the buzzer died. But as I woke up further, I began connecting the dots very slowly: We did take a cab on our way home. But the nice driver I remembered was not wearing the glasses I saw peering through monitor of my buzzer at four in the morning, my mind insisted. Plus I remembered nothing about my wallet. I did forget one in a Hong Kong cab once. But that was in 1997 and it cost me more than $3,000. So from that time on, I have always looked on the back seat before I leave a taxi. And I did just that last night. But the man with the glasses insisted. He called again, and at this point I buzzed him in, went to get the keys, and felt the pockets of the jacket I had been wearing to the Chinese dinner. There was no wallet. I went downstairs and through the glass door I saw a man waving, a wallet in his hand. It was my wallet. I expected a tough negotiation.
Good that they repaired CCTV cameras in a lobby, I said to myself, completely incredulous. How had the man in front of me found out where I lived, and the number of my apartment?
It was with your Italian driver’s license,” he told me a second later, when he handed me my wallet. William – that was the driver’s name – had found it on the floor of his car after he finished his night shift. He’d first gone back to the hotel where he’d dropped off his last clients, but the receptionist assured him that Mr. Mrevlje was not staying in hotel. He then took a better look at the Italian driver’s license.
Last year, after I renewed it at the Italian General Consulate in New York – a three-day procedure for which the Italian state charged me almost $500 – the Consulate issued me a little slip of paper with the license’s new expiration date, a huge Italian government seal, and the signature of the official who approved the renewal. By now, this little typewritten piece of paper was already shredded and smudged from sitting in my wallet all the time. If left on my desk or anywhere in the open, that yellowish slip of paper could be lost or blown away by the smallest wind. However, it does have my New York address on it, I realized, including the number of my apartment.
The supreme irony was that none of the documents in my wallet had been good enough to get us into the bar next to the restaurant where we were waiting for a table on Wednesday. And God knows that I do not look like a teenager. A fake American driver’s license – one of those used by American teenagers under the legal drinking age of 21 to buy alcohol – would probably have done the trick. But the security guard insisted on New York State issued documents only. Since two in our little group were foreign citizens, we were doomed and had to find a small, funky bar further down the street. But that little slip of a paper, that masterpiece of dysfunctional Italian bureaucracy, brought William to my house with the lost wallet at 4 a.m. Of course, it needed a detective-like mind, and a generous, honest person like William to make this happen.
But there was also a bit of luck that led to my wallet’s return, which I discovered when I called him the next day to deliver a more alert thank you: William is an American citizen. He was born in Ghana, traveled around Africa, and landed in Libya, where he worked for a while. At a certain point he left Libya by plane for Palermo, Italy, he explained, meaning he understood Italian. My guess is that he actually took one of those terrible boats managed by a criminal organization to transport desperate African immigrants who seek a better life in Europe. Instead, thousands of them have ended up dead at the bottom of Mediterranean Sea. But William made it. He found work and gradually moved north, from Palermo to Veneto, and then to Bolzano. He got an Italian driver’s license and a regular job and became fluent in the language. He got married to a Ghanaian woman with whom he now has a son. Ten years ago, he made a jump and moved to New York. They now live in the Bronx. William is a taxi driver and is obviously grateful to his new homeland for accepting him. And I am happy that I dropped my wallet in his car .