I picked it up between two fingers and waved it limply around.
“Hello,” I called, addressing the streets of San Diego. “Did somebody lose this?”
I said it loudly, but not too loudly, because I really needed that $20.
Nobody responded, because the street was vacant. I dangled the bill over my head, tempting heaven to reclaim this manna. I imagined an all-knowing, benevolent being staring down and gently smiling. I’m a tiny ant, a speck of muddled humanity, a girl with tangled hair and cutoff jeans.
The universe, which only a moment before had seemed ugly and threatening, became a lovely place to pass the next 80 years or so. San Diego, my old buddy. I felt as if we’d spent summers together, licking drippy Popsicles and riding our bikes to the community pool. I went to an extraordinarily cheap Mexican café and got a wonderfully filling breakfast burrito for under a dollar. I sat in the café, read the San Diego Reader for the first time, and watched people go by. Through no fault or achievement of their own, they earned kinder judgments this time around.
That’s the moment that inspired Operation 20. Now, I leave $20 on people’s cars and watch what happens when they find it.
It isn’t charity.
Twenty bucks doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference to most people. I’d like to give the money to someone in circumstances similar to the one in which I found myself that first day in San Diego. But it’s too much to ask. And if this were really charity, I’d leave after depositing the $20. But I don’t leave. I sit and watch. It’s better than a movie.
I like how the sight of money provokes an instant response. It’s like a punch in the face, or a really cute baby — you can’t unexpectedly discover money and not respond. Someone’s having a shitty day, but then they find $20 and maybe their whole perspective changes. At the very least, it makes them think. Perhaps it changes the trajectory of their thoughts, pushing them in a slightly more positive direction.
One of my favorites was a frazzled-looking little mama, who, after finding the $20, ran back into the store, emerging with another bag of groceries. It’s satisfying, giving to someone who actually needs it. More satisfying than, say, the time I planted $20 on a white Escalade. The busty blonde woman who emerged from a store and found the $20 tucked it into her bra. She swung her fervid gaze around the parking lot, as if whoever had given her the money would soon take it away.
My mom always said that you love whom you serve. When I’m tempted to judge someone with that same, silent, scathing judgment I passed out like candy my first day in San Diego, I imagine that they’re one of my Operation 20 people. Because I love my Operation 20 people, flawed as they might be. You’re a quirky, funny bunch, people of San Diego, and I hate you no more.
Tonight’s candidate is a good example. He approaches his Ford Ranger with a quick stride. He’s wearing a black baseball cap, and his white hair is in a scraggly ponytail. Black jeans and cowboy boots. He looks like a man who would tell dirty jokes to his grandchildren. Hell, he’d tell dirty jokes to your grandchildren, and they would laugh. He’d wear Wranglers to a black-tie event, and he’s so self-assured that the other guys would question their tuxes.
Watching him approach the truck, I notice details I didn’t see at first. The truck has personalized license plates that say “Dr. R,” and though battered, it has expensive alloy rims, and it’s lifted. This man could be driving a BMW, but he’s opted instead to keep his truck out of nostalgia or stubbornness. I smile, noticing his cowboy boots. That takes courage, cowboy boots in suburban San Diego.
He spots the $20. He licks his lips, pulls the bill off the door handle and sniffs it. A smile that might be a smirk spreads over his face. He darts around the truck, checks the other door handles, the grill, the truck bed. Is he honestly looking for more money? He is! Wasn’t that enough for you, you greedy bastard?
Then the man unlocks the truck door, loads his groceries, and I think he’s going to get in and drive away, but instead he whips around. He is staring right at me. A flint-filled stare, knowing and deliberate. I feel it bore through the windshield and into my forehead. For a long moment, I’m frozen. Then I fumble in the passenger’s seat for my phone. I pretend to talk.
The man boosts himself into the driver’s seat. He flips on his headlights and drives off, my $20 in his pocket. I note that one of his many bumper stickers reads, “I love animals: They taste delicious.” I have to laugh at the irony — I’m a vegetarian.
I usually scribble down a few notes while I sit in parking lots waiting for reactions. What follows is a representative selection.
Operation 20 Field Report
Date: November 4, 4:00 p.m.
Location: Ocean Beach parking lot, near the pier
Vehicle: a beat-up gold Nissan
Reaction: (Don’t let your kids read this, ’cause it gets ugly.)
I only have to wait about 15 minutes before some teenagers approach the car on which I had planted a $20 bill. Glancing sideways, trying to be inconspicuous, I see there are two boys and one girl. They look like the kind of kids who change their clothes after leaving the house because their parents wouldn’t want them to go out dressed like that.
Girl: Hey, I need something out of your car. Would you unlock the doors?
Boy #1 hits a button on his key chain.
Girl, speaking to Boy #2: Hey, can you help me get my stuff out?
Boy #2: Huh? Why?
Girl: Just help me.