LA TIMES OP-ED - Know Your Capitals

A lost wallet, a New York cabbie — and the benefits of knowing your world geography.

October 02, 2011|By Michael Krikorian

When I get into a taxi, I almost always ask the cabbie, "Where you from?" In Los Angeles that can be a dangerous gang challenge, but because in my experience cabbies are never from Los Angeles, it hasn't been a problem. What I hear back is Liberia, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus and so on. And then I say, depending on whatever home country they named, "Are you from Monrovia?" or Yerevan or Dhaka or Minsk? Invariably, the cab drivers are delighted, even proud, that a stranger, an American, knows their capital.

I bring this up because knowing your capitals is a good thing. It brings people together, and it can help you out in ways unexpected, which is what happened to me on a recent trip to New York.

My girlfriend, Nancy, and I were in New York, partly because a friend was up for a cooking award there. She didn't win, but that didn't stop us from celebrating — 20 people at the Breslin in the Ace Hotel on 29th Street. It was a bacchanal: two whole pigs, cocktails, red wine and, umm, let's see, more red wine. The last thing I remember clearly was cautiously going down the stairs. There was a vague cab ride to our hotel 12 blocks downtown.

In the morning, Nancy went to get something out of her purse and realized her wallet was missing. It contained all her cash and credits cards and, most important, her California driver's license, which she needed to get on her flight home the next morning.

We began a painstaking hunt for the missing wallet that would have made the vaunted Yosemite search-and-rescue team proud. I must've set an American record for looking under a bed.

So we started making calls: The hotel lost and found, the restaurant, friends who were with us, 311, the taxi commission. We didn't have a receipt from the cab ride, so the taxi commission guy wasn't much help. We tried the NYPD. These calls took hours, and were without reward.

Finally, I patrolled the streets, playing an absurd long shot that the wallet, perhaps dropped outside the restaurant or our hotel, would still be there hours later.

We gave up. Nancy called the credit card companies and canceled. We began the process of trying to get an ID so she could get home. We were told a passport, scanned, emailed and color printed, might get you on a plane. A friend went to our house in L.A. and found her passport, but when the scan arrived, the passport expiration date was cut off. Again, again, again: Same thing.

Facing defeat, Nancy and I went for a walk. Heading east on 14th Street, Nancy got a call. She stopped. I turned around to look at her. She beamed. "Muhammad found the wallet!"

It had been dropped in this guy Muhammad's taxicab. He went through it, found Nancy's auto insurance card and called the company, which called her. I called him.

Muhammad was a little difficult for me to understand with his accent and my lousy cell, but I made out that he was working and would meet me in an hour or so at Union Square.

When I got there, out of a pack of cabs, one pulled to a stop and double-parked close by.

"Mister Michael. It's Muhammad from last night. You remember me. From Bangladesh. You knew where I was from. My capital."

"Yeah, of course," I said "Dhaka."

Muhammad smiled big. He handed me the wallet and told me to look at it to make sure everything was there. I handed him five 20s. He said no. I insisted.

Back in L. A., I told a friend this story. He told me, "It restores my faith in humanity."

But faith in humanity does not need to be restored. Humanity is all over the place, shining everyday.

But, just as a backup, know your capitals.

Michael Krikorian, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, reports for the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.