It was back in a primitive time before I’d discovered things like direct deposit and automatic payments. I did all of my important adult things at what was then known as Shop ‘n Save but which today is known as “the grocery store.” On this particular afternoon, the trading was particularly intense, sort of a poor man’s Wall Street where water bills and telephone statements are discussed instead of bulls and bears.

I cashed a paycheck here and applied a portion of it to an electrical bill there. I returned a rented movie and had the late fee (if it weren’t for late fees, I would be a wealthy man today) deducted from a smaller check which I also used to pay for cable.

The numbers grew dizzying. Cash went back and forth like playing cards on a Vegas table. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. When it was over, the clerk handed me a thin wad of money left over after the dazzling transaction. Sweaty and bleeding a bit from the blur of customer service, she had handed me exactly $100 more than I was due.

One of my feet took a step toward the door. A half-step really. Not even a step at all, when you get right down to it. I brought that foot to a halt and moved back to the customer service desk. I peeled off the hundred smackers and explained that it had been given to me in error. Because in that span of one-half second, my mind conjured an image of the sweet-faced clerk turning pale and doe-eyed as the store manager screamed at her at the end of the day. I saw her hands shaking and tears welling as she tried to account for the shortage in her till. I saw this hard working lady with the obligatory smile eating refried beans each night because some lout had made off with more dough than he had earned.

I like to think that a hefty 85 percent of us (the numbers are hefty, not the people in this scenario) will return money that has been handed to over in error. For all the narcissism and ill tempers, most of us still have that nagging screech of empathy when potential good fortune tries to rob from somebody else.

We like our money, oh yes we do. But we also try to do the right thing, tiresome as that can be, and we don’t like to contribute to the misfortunes of others if we can help it. We’re good people, us 85 percenters. Go on and give yourselves a big hand. You deserve it, you awesome son-of-a-shopping basket.

But I fear it might be changing. Not necessarily the numbers, but the depth of the goodwill we display. We still try to be decent people, but the volume of that decency may be shrinking. It may fit into a good-sized Winnebago these days instead of a whole parking lot.

So it’s a more recent Saturday afternoon and I’m shopping with that wife I have. This was back in those glorious days when Shaw’s had self-checkout lanes. I loved the self-checkout. A man didn’t have to stand in line pretending to scan the tabloid covers just to overcome the awkwardness of standing in public with very personal items in his hand.

We checked and bagged our items and were about to go when my wife spotted a small pile of bills in the change compartment. It wasn’t our money – we had paid with a card – but oh, that cash looked good. It came to about 20 clams, all told, and pretty much negated what we had just paid for our groceries.

I had big plans for that cash – you can still get a decent wig for 20 bucks if you shop right – but those plans vanished in a blur of my wife. Before I could even explain my rationale for keeping the loot, she had carried it all sucker-like to the courtesy counter.

Here’s me doing a mocking impression of my wife in a high falsetto: “My name is Corey. Blah blah blah. I’d like to return this money. Blah blah blah. I think I’m Mother Teresa. Blah blah blah.”

I put my hands on my hips all self-righteously when I do it, too. Really makes it pop.

I saw it this way. Whomever had left that cash behind was already gone and probably wouldn’t be back. Shaw’s would hang on to the money until it went unclaimed and then, whoosh! Right back into the pockets of the giant corporation.

So, you see? The broadness of my integrity had narrowed some already. In these hard economic times, it’s easy to rationalize. Instead of producing an image of some old lady out twenty bucks, the devious eye of my conscience was able to adjust the view. I wasn’t stealing from some poor woman on a tight pension, that crafty conscience encouraged me. That money was stuck in a sort of limbo between vendor and customer and thus, it wasn’t stealing at all.

Which is kind of what we fear with the gloom of recession hanging over us: A warping of our sense of right and wrong and a withering of the fairness we have always maintained.

You’ll return that wallet you found on the sidewalk, sure. But maybe you’ll pluck the cash from it first and claim there was none when you found it.

You’ll stop at the side of the road to help a stranger extricate his car from the snowbank. But maybe he owes you a smooth fifty bucks for your trouble, waddaya say?

You’d hate to see it come to that because the one good thing about tough times are the people who remain twice as tough hanging onto their values. I hope those values don’t shrink so much that they are gone completely. I hope there are really 85 percent of us out here.

I hope Shaw’s brings back the self-checkout someday. I’m tired of reading about the rotten things that happen to Britney and I’m just sick about what happened between Brad and the nanny.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal crime reporter.

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