It was just sitting there. I looked around me and saw no one nearby, but then again it was just about dinner time and there wouldn’t be many people in the park. I looked again and it was still there. The wallet was a folded type, absolutely bulging because all that had been stuffed into it. I could also see the corners of a few greenbacks but I couldn’t tell the denomination. But money is very recognizable and just the slightest fragment is enough to look at it and think that’s money. I realized that I had been standing there for upwards of a couple of minutes as my little brain worked frantically to process what I was seeing and what it might mean to me. The elements of my life had been such that my first thought was not what a stroke of luck had just come my way, nor was it any kind of Samaritan thinking. No, it was pure, unadulterated caution. It rang alarms through me like lightning bolts. I decided that I would step out of the picture and keep thinking about my find.
I walked to a bench about 50 feet away and sat down. From there I could gaze at the wallet should I want to, but instead I looked around, taking in the sights. Alamo Park is on a hilly parcel of San Francisco with lots of grass and some trees. The majority of the trees were clustered at the crest where public restrooms stood by just in case. Asphalt walkways wound around the park, little roadways for people on bikes, wheelchairs, skateboards, feet, whatever. Off in the distance was the brand new Trans America Pyramid building, poking its spire above the painted ladies row houses.
Voices attracted my attention and I looked to see a couple of guys rounding the corner back by the rest rooms and the people and doggy drinking fountains. They looked to be in their early teens and were both wearing t-shirts and jeans. They followed the walkway and were about to pass in front of me. No doubt they too would see the wallet laying there in all its chubby glory. Yep. They saw it. One yelled “hey!” and jogged ahead of his friend to where the wallet lay in the open. He stopped short and looked around. He saw me and his eyes lingered on me for a second, then he looked back at his buddy who had just caught up to him. The kid bent over and snatched up the wallet and they both crowded each other as they checked out the contents. I saw them pull a small sheaf of bills out of the wallet which was quickly divided between the two of them. The one kid dropped the now cash stripped wallet on the ground again and they strolled off talking and laughing, no doubt congratulating each other on their easy windfall.
That’s when about eight adults seemed to come out of nowhere. They must have been laying down on the grass, hidden by the rolling contours of the grounds. In just a few seconds they had surrounded the two kids. I watched all of this, curious about what it was I was watching. Then I saw a set of handcuffs come out and the boys were shackled to each other and led back up the hill to the crest where the restroom building sat beneath the trees. Them cops sat the boys down on one of the benches there and talked to them. I couldn’t hear what they were saying though. As I watched, one of the plainclothes cops separated himself and came my way. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” he called to me. I shrugged and wondered what he wanted to talk to me about. It’s not like I did anything.
“Do you know those boys?” he asked me, sitting down next to me. I shook my head. “Well, I’m going to need a statement from you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“You’re a witness. You saw those boys steal money from a wallet.”
“No, I didn’t.” I replied.
“What do you mean, no? You were sitting here watching. We all saw you. Actually, we thought you were going to steal the money and were surprised when you walked away.”
“I saw a couple of kids walking. I saw them stop and pick something up. Then I saw them drop it again.” I said. I thought the cops were being kind of shitty. Purposely leaving a wallet and then laying in wait for someone to pick it up.
“You’re saying you didn’t see them empty the wallet and divide up the money?”
“What money? Actually, until you just said, I didn’t even know what they picked up and looked at was a wallet. I figured whatever it was, it wasn’t valuable because they dropped it again.” There was no way I was going to give this guy any satisfaction. What they did was entrapment. An old lady hobbling with her walker could have just as easily found the wallet and picked it up. Would they bust her? “As a matter of fact, like you said, I sat here and watched the whole thing and I’m sure they didn’t steal anything. Positive, in fact. You should let those kids go.”
“No way we’re letting a couple of thieves loose, pal. We got ‘em with the money That money was marked back at the station so we could identify it. Each of them had some of it in their pockets.” Now, perhaps it was just too close to the sixties, and maybe I was catching up on the Up The Establishment movement because I’d been in the military, and maybe I just didn’t like this guy who was rubbing me the wrong way. Maybe it was all of that or maybe it was none of it that made me say what I said next.
“I saw them, if they had any money you marked they had it because you must have planted it.” I said.
The cop’s eyes grew wide and his face showed a rising fury, getting all red and his veins sticking out. “We don’t plant evidence, bud.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t prove that by me and if you bust those kids I’m gonna report what I saw to the American Civil Liberties Union and the news people.” His getting mad was making me mad. For a second there I though the guy might hit me and then claim I assaulted him or something. But he jumped to his feet and literally stomped his way back to the gathering by the restrooms. I could hear his angry tones and saw him wave his arm in my direction. Then I saw all of the cops stiffen and stand up real straight and start giving me the stink eye. The two kids started laughing, and that obviously made the cops even madder.
They clustered around each other and went into a huddle. After a few minutes, I saw a lot of droopy shoulders and watched as they uncuffed the boys from each other and sent them on their way. The kids went back in the direction they came from, which was away from me. I decided I’d better hit the trail before I ended up in any unwanted entanglements so I hustled down to Hayes Street, cut over to Filmore and hoofed it to McAllister Street where I lived.
I’ve wondered, on and off, about that day way back when. I wonder if I turned a couple of kids loose to build a life of crime that victimized a lot of people, or whether I gave two decent kids a break that let them have a life that was free of law enforcement so now they’re in Congress or the Senate. (They did exploit the situation and take the money after all.) But I was sure then and I’m sure now that what the cops did was wrong. Call it entrapment or something like that. I don’t know, it just seemed wrong. I have to say that I had fun doing it, we don’t often get to observe authority act unreasonably and be able to do something about it. But I also think about the way seeing that wallet set off alarms in my head rather than tickling the pleasure centers, causing me to avoid it. Had I picked up the wallet there would have been no one to stand up for me and I could very well be writing this from a prison cell, having been forced into a life of crime.
Or maybe Congress or the Senate.