Pit Stops on The Road Of Life
The Wallet Man
Excuse me, folks, while I take a while to set up this story. It isn’t every day that one gets to meet The Wallet Man and many will live a lifetime never meeting him. In my case, the stars converged in just the right manner to afford me this opportunity.
From August, 1974 until May, 1975 I spent 9 months in downtown Chicago, working on disaster duty for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA.) Generally, I approved disaster home loans right on-site where the disaster had occurred. Often, I would go home when operations wrapped up and await a call to the next disaster. Sometimes, there’d be a job on another disaster and I’d go directly from one to the next. In this case, I had finished work on a tornado in Xenia, Ohio. There had been flooding in the past few years in the flatlands west of Chicago and my help was needed to audit how borrowers had spent their loan proceeds. They had been required to submit receipts. For example, if they’d lost, say, $7,000 in clothing, furniture and other personal property, their receipts should NOT show they’d spent the entire amount for a new car. Faced with such a situation, we could demand that they immediately repay the entire loan.
SBA personnel in the Chicago District Office were busy with their regular programs and had had no time to even begin auditing disaster loans. They had sorted the receipts alphabetically by borrower’s last name, piled them in boxes up in a storage room two floors above the office, and left them there. I could audit as many as I had time to do, assigning whatever silly little systems I chose to adopt. One day I might do "all J’s", the next day "two from one box and three from the next box", and then "fat envelopes only."
For the most part, auditing was fairly boring, flipping through receipts and running totals on an adding machine. That all changed the day I found a check that looked a little unusual. It was CLEAN, i.e., bearing no markings of having been through the check-processing system. Looking closely, I saw that it was payable to "SBA" and had NEVER BEEN CASHED! The borrower hadn’t needed his entire loan and had remitted this check as a "Return Of Proceeds." The check was about 2 years old but a quick call to the bank on which it was drawn revealed that they would still pay it. The SBA regulars were very pleased with my thorough work and, from that day forth, I made sure to study EVERY check I encountered. By the end of my 9 months, I had found over $20,000 for Uncle Sam. God only knows how many more dollars lie in checks that I didn’t have time to study.
Despite my success in my assigned task, I was sometimes asked to help with regular office duties. One drudge job was packing up old loan files and taking them to the Federal Archives on the South Side near Comiskey Park. A young fellow named Tony and I accomplished this as a team. We learned that we could haul 4 boxes at a time on a hand truck and that we could fit 8 boxes into a GSA car. We’d make a trip down a freight elevator to the loading dock in the basement of the Dirksen Federal Building on South Dearborne Street and leave the first 4 boxes there. After a return trip with the next 4 boxes, Tony would take the hand truck back upstairs while I went to get the car. We’d made the excursion to the Archives twice but, on the third trip, trouble befell us. I came back with the car, Tony got off the elevator, and our boxes were GONE! Only then did we do what, it turns out, we should have done on our very first trip. We talked to the dock master in charge of the basement area. "Where did you leave them?", he queried. We pointed to the spot and gave us the bad news. "That’s the postal pickup zone !!" Sure enough, a postal truck had come through just recently and the driver must have taken out boxes!!
Returning to the office, we quickly ‘fessed up our sin and were chagrined to report that, yes, we had labeled the boxes using postal mailing labels. "But", we moaned, "the very first person who tries to sort them by destination will quickly see they aren’t addressed to ANYONE !! They read things like "1971 Paid in Full, Jackson-Ross" !! We placed a call to the Main Post Office asking them to intercept the driver who had just made the pickup but they seemed unable to. It was now my job to go get the boxes back.
The Dead Letter Office in Chicago covers 5 states’ worth of items that didn’t reach their intended destinations. It is a huge room, chock full of almost anything you can imagine. One could find a crucifix, five pounds of candy, a cuckoo clock, 3 pairs of pantyhose, or an ant farm—anything and everything that simply hadn’t finished its journey. These packages bore no return addresses and so they sat, awaiting the next public auction. I could tell at a glance if one of my boxes was in the room for I knew the size and shape I was looking for. Simply calling didn’t solve the problem—the employees were too busy to look for them. I had to make a trip to look for them myself. I think it took six weeks before we eventually recovered our last box.
I became a regular and grew quite familiar with the employees. One day, a fellow said "There’s someone here you should meet." In a lonely little room, sitting at a desk all by himself, was The Wallet Man. He had a stack of wallets next to him and, all day long, every day, his sole job was to open the wallets and look at driver’s licenses or ID cards to determine to whom they belonged. He also had several phone books and he would first try to call the owners to ask if they wanted their wallet back. Failing to reach the owner, he’d just seal the wallet into a "Postage Due" envelope and mail it to them anyway. My very first question, as you may have guessed, was "HOW does the Post Office end up with all these wallets?" "MUGGERS!!", he replied. "They’ll mug someone, tear out the cash and credit cards, and then toss the empty wallet into a mailbox!!" Having not grown up in a crime-ridden big city, that possibility wouldn’t have occurred to me.
It’s been over 30 years now since I met The Wallet Man and I still think of him from time to time. I can still see that poor lonely soul, alone at his desk with that huge pile of wallets. Perhaps he was the lowest-paid man on the totem pole or maybe he had just gotten into the boss’s dog house. In his small little way, he is a minor hero to me, doing what he can to make life a little easier for crime victims and I salute him. Hail, oh, Wallet Man!! Live long and prosper !!
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
cell phone (717) 309-1402