Windfall at Spaghetti Junction
OpinionClosing Thoughts

Windfall at Spaghetti Junction

An open car window becomes a portal for the unexpected.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

I do my very best to avoid Atlanta’s worst rush hour traffic, which starts earlier and ends later every year. Nevertheless, once in a while I am forced to navigate the maddening convergence of I-85 and I-285 at the most congested time of day.

It was on an afternoon this summer, at this infuriating time and place, when my car air conditioner stopped running. In order to avoid heat prostration, I opened my car windows, and that’s when it happened.

I was suddenly surprised when a one dollar bill wafted into my car. At first I thought it was an unfortunate butterfly or random piece of paper, but when I caught it and took a good look, I was simultaneously amused and confused.

What was going on? I love the Exodus story and subsequent Biblical narrative, however, I-285 isn’t the desert (although it certainly felt like it), and a dollar couldn’t sustain me as daily manna. Surely, the all-knowing Almighty would have sent me at least a 20.

Money was flying everywhere, and motorists were responding wildly. In my lane, vehicles were forced to a complete standstill because someone several cars ahead of us had actually parked in place, left his auto, and was darting through traffic, grabbing money. Seeing that this man was successful, despite his suicidal behavior, a few others did the same. Some forced their cars into the service lane, then ran back into the creeping traffic to take their chances. A woman, dashing near my car, saw that my window was open. She waved crazily, pulled a couple of bills from her fist, and threw a one and a five into my car.

Simply because my air conditioner broke, I was now seven dollars richer than before. I had not joined the hunter-gatherers around me, yet I was a beneficiary of their foolish greed. All traffic had come to a standstill, so I turned off my engine, wondering if I’d taken the wrong ramp into a parallel universe. Was this really happening?

People had been snapping pictures and, like me, calling 911. I had mixed feelings: the evil part of me was delighted and fascinated by the circus-like atmosphere, yet, at the same time, I was expecting someone to get hurt. Naturally, I was furious that I was completely stuck. Then, about 10 minutes after the flying money episode began, I heard sirens.

Aware that “the law” was headed our way, everyone raced back to their cars. It wasn’t easy for the police to reach the service lane, get out of their vehicles and physically enter the fray to manage the chaos, but they succeeded. As we began to move at the previous snail-like pace, bills continued to fly through the air behind us.     

Heading home, I had two troubling thoughts. First, whose money was that? Second, what should I do with my “windfall”?

Jewish law teaches us to try to return lost property to its rightful owner, but it’s usually impossible to locate someone who dropped money. Otherwise, it’s ours to keep. I hoped that the money hadn’t been blown or wrested from a beggar near the road or come from a kid in the back seat of a car, counting his birthday stash. Was it counterfeit and therefore non-negotiable? But, no, I remembered that counterfeiters never bother creating low-denomination bills. It was highly unlikely that an unlatched Brinks truck was the source. Had it come from a voyeuristic troublemaker? I stopped myself; I was getting carried away. The seven dollars was clearly mine.

Now, what does one do with unearned, ungifted and undeserved money? Again, Jewish tradition provides resolution: we’re a tribe of tithers. We give 10 percent to tzedakah. That would be exactly 70 cents.

At last I reached my exit and, lo and behold, leaning against a utility pole, there stood a weary young woman with a handmade sign and a cup. I gave her one of the dollars. She thanked me and nodded, pretending to understand me when I lamely joked, “Keep the change!”

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