If someone had observed me as I traveled in Spain, they might have wondered why I gave myself several TSA-style pat downs daily. Before leaving an AirBnB, exiting a pool locker room, restaurant or museum, or at any moment of transition, I’d double or triple check my zippered pockets – of my pants, jacket or wind shirt – to make sure I had my apartment key, my phone and change purse. I kept two credit cards, my debit card and some dollars in a zippered waist pouch and patted for those, too. Talented pickpockets roam in Barcelona so I tucked my valuables away. My pat downs became a ritual, a way to make sure that I had not lost track of anything, especially my attention.
Upon returning, I did much the same thing. I bought a lighter jacket, whose pockets were in the same positions as my original one, allowing me to transfer the habit. Not long after that, I received two replacement credit cards. After discovering in Spain that a ticket kiosk only accepted contactless cards, requiring me to wait in a long line at an understaffed counter to board a regional train, I requested a contactless card from Chase. When it arrived, I admired its sleek design, the satiny royal blue surface and the fact that my card number was on the back, making it harder for someone to commit fraud. I imagined how much more ease I’d feel the next time I traveled abroad because I wouldn’t have to explain to every server, cashier or clerk that my American card had to be inserted or swiped. When locals and other tourists quickly tap their cards and keep things moving, the extra 15-20 seconds of processing time, plus the need for a signature, seems like an excruciating eternity in which my cover is blown (I like to blend in when I travel). The other card – from REI – replaced one that had just expired. I appreciated its fresh, happy design. While I no longer buy much outdoor gear, I’ve kept the card because it offers insurance for my iPhone, another invention that provokes deep ambivalence. I put both new plastic rectangles in a small, red orange card wallet.
With a large upcoming expense on my radar, I began thinking of how to pay for it, including the option of splitting it among different cards, some of which offer cash back. As possibilities simmered at the back of my mind, I stopped for gas on a gray, drizzly afternoon. I pulled my wallet from my jacket pocket, retrieved my new shiny blue card and inserted it at the pump. Afterwards I returned the card to my wallet, put my wallet in my pocket, and took the receipt. At my next stop, Sierra Trading Post, I stood in line to buy a set of travel utensils. I reached for my wallet but couldn’t find it. I patted myself a few times – no luck. I paid with cash and left the store. I checked on and under the front seats of the car. No wallet to be found, although the fuel receipt rested on the passenger side. I returned to the gas station. The bright card case would be easy to spot. Even though only 15 minutes had passed, I didn’t see it on the pavement. I asked the attendant if anyone had turned it in. No, he said. I left him my name and number, just in case. I drove back to Sierra Trading Post. I scanned the aisles and left my contact information with an employee.
Would I see the wallet again?
When I considered its most critical contents – four credit cards, one debit card, my driver’s license, health insurance and pharmacy cards, I suddenly felt like a fly trapped in capitalism’s sticky web. I considered how I would organize myself in the temporary absence of plastic. I had a full tank of gas, my checkbook, a bit of cash and my passport. What could I do with them? They seemed strangely inadequate and mismatched: in theory a passport would allow me to leave the United States, yet I wouldn’t be able to buy a plane ticket! I also wondered what had happened to my previous self, the one who, upon returning from walking El Camino de Santiago, had trimmed her possessions and her wallet, not wishing to burden her brain and imagination with capitalist complications, such as which card to use when, or how best to accumulate points or maximize benefits. That self didn’t want to be distracted or feel like a marionette being manipulated by deals and discounts (in her honor, I have resisted the siren song of Amazon Prime, despite its tantalizing deals at Whole Foods).
About a month ago I had dinner with one of my late father’s friends, who I also consider to be a friend of mine. A professional and a homeowner, she confessed to being a financial dinosaur who, after years of using cash and checks, is only now updating her tools simply because the world demands it. I told her I envied her for holding out so long. At heart I am a luddite, and I often wish I could return to the pace of pen on paper, at least in my home country. So far, I have lacked the courage to resume living that way. I fear I will be ridiculed or left behind, even though I often lose or confuse myself trying to keep pace with technology and society’s addiction to speed and efficiency.
Less than an hour after my wallet disappeared and, imagining that someone was enjoying a spending spree at my expense, I went online to request replacement cards. Luckily I had not entered panic mode so I took my time and only reported one missing. Twenty minutes later the phone rang; I learned that someone had found my wallet at the gas station and turned it into the police who delivered to it my mother’s neighbor. Humility tempered my enormous relief and gratitude. I’d been so absorbed in thought that I did not feel or hear my wallet slip from an unzipped pocket. Meanwhile, a clear headed samaritan and a helpful cop had both gone out of their way to do the right thing. It occurred to me that my new jacket, with somewhat slippery fabric, might not be ideal for carrying valuables. I transferred everything to a small cross-body bag.
That evening, the rain clouds lifted just enough for the sun’s last rays to pour through. The stunning display delighted me so much that I raced outside to take photos, eager to witness and capture the fleeting beauty. The quality of my excitement – pure, unselfconscious and uninhibited, like that of an innocent child – felt like a tonic for my soul and a direct (“contactless”) experience of life itself, something that money or financial sophistication can’t buy. The fact is that nature has a way of deeply nourishing me in ways that nothing else can. Whenever I forget that, I impoverish myself. The reminder couldn’t have come at a better time.