ST. PETERSBURG — He climbed onto the bus, rummaging through a plastic shopping bag on his shoulder.
When he found his transit card, the driver helped him slip it into the slot.
He had thick white hair, a short beard.
He was the only person to board at Fifth Street N that Monday afternoon.
Ten minutes after 2, he sank into the first seat on the left. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority cameras show him yanking bags from his bag, shaking each out, spreading them on the seat.
The bus hadn’t even driven a block when he stood up.
“Stop! I have to get off!”
At the next corner, the driver opened the door.
The man hurried down the steps, then frantically searched the bus shelter at Sixth Street.
“Did you find anything?” he asked two young men, who hadn’t.
He crouched, looked beneath the benches. He pulled out his bags again and, one by one, turned them inside out.
• • •
Raymond Krug, 75, is deaf. He reads lips and speaks.
Four years ago, he retired from cleaning houses in New York and moved to Florida. He lives with his rescue Chihuahua, Roxy.
That spring day, he had left his apartment to get groceries from Walmart, dog food from Target.
And he wanted to deposit money from his last few Social Security checks: $5,800, stacked in rubber bands, folded into a brown leather wallet.
He had wrapped it all in a wad of empty bags, shoved them into the big satchel and walked seven blocks to the bus, headed to Regions Bank.
As soon as he sat down, he checked for his wallet.
Where was it?
How could I have lost it?
What am I going to do?
At the bus shelter, he hung his head. Five months of rent. All he’d saved, all year.
The bus pulled away.
• • •
Five blocks west, four passengers boarded Route 18.
A woman in a black T-shirt and pink tights, with a colorful purse, bent to pay her fare and saw something on the floor. Someone’s Social Security card. She handed it to the driver.
Gary Pfinstein didn’t think anything of it. People leave things on the bus all the time: walkers, dentures, even children.
When the woman turned into the first seat on the left, she noticed two wallets: one small, and a larger brown one with a silver buckle.
She didn’t open them. Just walked them up to the front.
• • •
The driver opened the bigger wallet — then gasped.
A wad of bills was inside, rubber banded with a slip of paper that said $4000.
Pfinstein radioed dispatch: “I need to speak to the supervisor.”
Then he started to panic.
What if it was some sort of drug money drop-off?
What if someone was following that man, and he ditched the cash out of fear?
“A lot of crazy things happen on the bus. A lot of things you can’t control,” Pfinstein said later. “And you’re trapped up here.”
He thought: That would give me a real nice vacation. Pay off my credit cards.
But he never thought about keeping it.
• • •
For the next three hours, Krug walked and worried.
He stopped in a pizza place, a bar, a Mexican restaurant. He questioned waiters and diners. He didn’t mention what was inside, didn’t want to tip anyone off.
He tried to visualize everywhere he’d been, what he might have done.
On these busy sidewalks, someone would have picked it up, he was sure. Once they’d seen all the cash, they would have pocketed it.
By 5 pm, his head and feet ached. He walked home, to Roxy, empty-handed.
• • •
As the bus continued along First Avenue N, the driver watched warily as passengers ambled down the aisle.
At Grand Central Station, Pfinstein carried the wallets into the office.
Customer service representative Yvonne Rembert closed the blinds, locked the door and called her boss.
“Can we count it out loud, in front of the cameras?” she asked.
“One hundred, two hundred, three hundred,” she said, peeling off bills. They were all $100s, except for four $50s. “That’s a lot of money,” she said. More than she’d ever seen.
“Better count it again,” Pfinstein said.
Rembert thought about taking her family to Atlantic City, beefing up her savings, tithing half to her church.
She thought about her dad. If he’d lost any money, she’d want someone to return it.
She prayed, “Please, God, get this back to its owner.”
• • •
Pfinstein opened the smaller wallet: cards for laundry, Big Lots, Medicare — and a Florida ID: Raymond Krug.
The photo matched the man who had hurried away.
The driver also found a list of four phone numbers.
He called the first, left a message, then called the next.
A woman answered. Yes, she knew Raymond. He lived across the hall.
Pfinstein told her about the wallet. She asked, “How much did he lose this time?”
• • •
Two PSTA supervisors drove to the address on Krug’s ID.
They were walking down the hall when they saw a woman slipping something under his door: a note, to let him know his wallet was safe.
They knocked. No one came.
So they added a business card to the note, asking Krug to call.
• • •
When Krug opened his door and found the note that night, he almost cried.
He hugged his dog, made a Bloody Mary, and thanked his neighbors, who called the number on the card for him.
He still doesn’t know how he didn’t see those wallets, or who turned them in. No one does. And he can’t believe so many strangers helped.
“I was shocked,” he said later. “I still am!”
He wished he knew who the woman with the colorful purse was, so he could thank her.
“There are still a few good people out there.”
The next day, PSTA workers delivered the wallets — and gave him a new bus pass. He clasped their hands and thanked them, again and again.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; Sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Claire McNeill at email@example.com.