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Great Neck Notebook: July 19, 2009

Only a Dollar

It was an average, ordinary Monday morning. On my way to work, I stopped at the post office and mailed some letters. Then I stopped at Deli on the Green to buy a bagel with butter. While I was waiting for the bagel, I picked up a copy of the Times. When the deli clerk asked me if I wanted anything else, I showed him the paper, which was tucked under my arm.

He rang up the sale: $1.25 for the bagel and 50 cents for the paper. I handed him two dollars and he gave me back a quarter. I hadn’t even made it to the front door of the deli, when I realized a mistake had been made. The deli sells the Post, Newsday, and the Times. Unlike the other two, which sell for 50 cents, the Times cost $1.50. The clerk had undercharged me by a dollar.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would have immediately turned around, walked back to the cash register, and handed over the other dollar. But in a moment of weakness, I kept walking, out the door towards my car. I felt like a kid who had found some extra money lying on the street—luck had smiled at me, shouldn’t I at least smile back?

My next stop was the dry cleaners. I had five shirts to drop off and a coupon for 20 percent off that Gail had clipped from the Pennysaver. I dropped off the shirts, gave in the coupon, and got back into my car. Before I started the engine, I glanced at the receipt for the shirts. There was no discount. I knew I had handed over the coupon, but it was as if it had never happened. The discount would have amounted to $1.50.

Luck had sent me $1 at the deli and then taken back $1.50 at the dry cleaners.

Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would have gone back in and asked for a corrected bill. Today I couldn’t.

As the day wore on, I continued to think about that dollar from the deli, which didn’t belong to me, but that I had kept. It wasn’t so much that I felt guilty about it—after all it was only a dollar—but that I felt disappointed in myself. I knew I should have given it back and I was upset that I hadn’t. Perhaps it’s only human nature, that we usually know the right thing to do, but for a variety of reasons (or excuses), don’t do it.

The next morning I stopped at Deli on the Green and bought another buttered bagel. One of the owners happened to wait on me. When he told me I owed $1.25 for the bagel, I handed him exact change and then told him I owed a dollar from the day before because I was undercharged for the Times.

He was surprised, but quickly thanked me for being so honest. I was happy that I had paid my debt, but knew I didn’t deserve any compliments for honesty. Sure it was only a dollar. It wasn’t going to change my life or the deli owner’s. But it’s only a small step—and a slippery slope—from small indiscretions to larger mistakes.

Hopefully I’ll do better the next time luck smiles at me.