One of my friends found a five-dollar bill once, which in those days was a small fortune, enough to buy a car dealership, or keep you in Bazooka Bubble Gum for the rest of your life. It happened while we were searching for abandoned deposit bottles. We’d been hoping to accumulate enough pennies to purchase a bag of potato chips or a box of Milk Duds that we could share. If we were feeling especially foolish, we might even combine our cash to buy a pack of baseball cards, a risky endeavor that too often produced the same results you’d expect when a group of adults gets together to invest in lottery tickets.
And then, there it was, folded in half and standing vertically in the tall grass. For a good ten or fifteen seconds, the thing wasn’t real. It was some scrap of paper, maybe a picture torn from a magazine. Something that only looked like a five-dollar bill. After all, anyone who lost that much money would be out there with a sickle in one hand and a shotgun in the other. But, no, it was legal and tender and genuinely authentic, and it vanished into the boy’s shirt as rapidly as it had appeared. So did he, as I recall, wisely scampering home before the rest of us had time to close our mouths.
“Finders keepers, losers weepers,” my father said later. I tried without success to comprehend either the ethics or the grammar of his statement. He elaborated: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
Now he was throwing legal theory at me — and fractions on top of that — but I somehow managed to grasp the premise. As I understood him, if an item was lost and I was the one who found it, then it belonged to me. Automatically. I was puzzled for a while, because this tactic had never worked inside our home. If I ever came across so much as a nickel in my older brother’s closet and taunted him with “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” he’d have stuffed me inside one of his shoes and left me there to die. The key difference, I eventually realized, was that the rule applied only to things discovered outside the house.
The next day, I shared this new information with my friends. One boy claimed to be familiar with it. “Yeah, no kidding,” he said. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Everybody knows that.” But the rest of them were happily surprised. The rest, that is, except for the lucky stiff who’d spotted and snared that five-dollar bill. We heard that he’d already bought an island in the Caribbean, and was no doubt lounging by his pool at that very moment, being fanned by one of his butlers and eating entire bags of potato chips and boxes of Milk Duds all by himself.
Recognizing how quickly wealth could be acquired, and sure that if such treasure could be stumbled upon by someone who couldn’t pass a third-grade spelling test, we concluded that the opportunity must be available to us, too. We began to devote every spare hour to scouring the ground, which was convenient because we were little, and so our focus tended to be downward anyway, where things were easier to reach.
In the process, we became experts in the nuances of litter, and dirt. Flattened beer cans could be used for first and third base in stickball, with manhole covers serving as second and home. When the ball rolled down a sewer, which it did every single time we played, we’d find pieces of tape or wire and create a recovery implement that could be lowered into the cool, damp opening. Bottle caps would be hoarded, as though we expected them to assume actual worth if collected in large numbers. We’d pick up old combs, broken glass, flat wooden ice cream spoons – anything that could someday be used to scrape, sharpen, or hang an important object.
Our most exciting discovery, by far, were the meteors. These were dark gray rocks, typically the size of a grapefruit, with blue streaks swirling around holes and indentations. We’d cradle them in our hands as if they were sacred relics, the way you might hold a pouch containing the bones of a saint, or a Whitey Ford rookie card.
We’d find the meteors, usually by stepping on them, in the weeds outside the lace factory across the street. They weighed next to nothing, like dried sponges, and why they always landed right there, we didn’t even bother trying to imagine. But the idea that we could touch something that had once been flying through outer space almost made our brains melt. It never occurred to us that maybe they weren’t really meteors. More likely, they were pieces of burned fuel — probably coal – from the factory. An older boy from the neighborhood had suggested as much, but we suspected that he was just jealous, and secretly wanted to make off with our rare artifacts so he could sell them to the Museum of Natural History and buy his own island in the Caribbean.
In the many years that followed, I’ve grown a little taller, but have maintained that habit of scanning the ground for discarded riches. Not once have I ever found more than thirty-five cents, and that was at the car wash. I’m pretty sure the coins fell out of my own pocket while I was vacuuming the floor mats.
I’ll keep looking, though, because you never know what’s underfoot, or what might fall out of the sky. I still dream of that dealership, and the lifetime supply of bubble gum. The prices of both seem to have gone up considerably since our carefree days in the North Bronx, along with the value of those long-lost baseball cards. I only wish I could say the same for my bottle cap collection.