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In St. Petersburg, two tales of found money

In one month, the writer twice found wads of cash.
Eleida Peña, a hard-working restaurant hostess, was delighted to find her lost tip money.
Eleida Peña, a hard-working restaurant hostess, was delighted to find her lost tip money. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Jan. 12

You may remember the old saying: “Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck.”

I lived by that motto most of my life, until the day, not long ago, I saw a penny in the street, and decided it was not worth bending over and throwing out my back. The next day, I found a nickel. It was mine. Inflation works in mysterious ways.

Found money! It’s been my desire since I was a boy.

My dream came true on a cool morning in December, when, outside a coffee shop in St. Pete, I saw something in the middle of Central Avenue, and could not believe my eyes. It was a wad of cash. My wife was astonished. It was divided by denominations, and because it was folded up neatly, the individual bills did not blow away. We counted it together…$78 in all.

I went into the coffee shop and found the manager, a cool dude I have come to know well. He made believe the money was his. I told him that I would hold on to the cash. If someone came in asking about it, the staff knew where they could find me.

I could have been generous and donated the money to charity. Instead, I spent it on lattes and blueberry muffins.

God did not punish me for my greed and gluttony. But he decided to tempt me again.

On the day after Christmas, I drove my car around the block to visit a neighbor. On the way home, I saw something through my windshield I thought could not be real. It sat fluttering in the middle of the road. Something green and papery. Surely it was a leaf from a tree, or debris fallen from a landscaping truck.

No. It was cash. Found money. Was this a trick? Where was “Candid Camera”?

This small stack of bills was like no other I had ever seen. First of all, the bills were stapled together, which is why they did not blow away. I counted them: $16 (a ten and six ones). When I turned the stack over, I saw the bills were attached to a small piece of paper that read: “Tip Share.” And a name: “Eleida P.”

Now I faced a moral dilemma. Could I keep for myself tip money earned, probably from a restaurant, by a hard-working woman?

Eleida was a distinctive name so I thought a digital search might prove fruitful. I recruited my daughter Lauren for help.

I found several Eleidas across the globe in various spellings. I hit the jackpot with a young woman from St. Petersburg: Eleida Peña, a recent graduate of Lakewood High School. With so much creepy stuff happening online, I thought it unwise for an old stranger like me to reach out to her. But I knew my found money must be her lost money. It once was lost, but now it’s found!

The next day, my daughter delivered the results of her detective work. “She lives at the other end of your street. Here’s the address.”

I knew the house from a previous owner. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I saw a neighbor sitting in his garage. He knew Eleida. “She’s my young friend,” he said. I told him where I lived.

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An hour later, my doorbell rang.

“Hello, Eleida. I’m so happy to see you. I think I found your tip money.”

Here’s what I learned about my new friend. She played on the soccer team at Lakewood, just like two of my daughters years ago. She is a freshman at Jacksonville University, where she is interested in pursuing a career in sports medicine and physical therapy. When she is back home in St. Pete, she works as a hostess at two locations of the Grand Hacienda Restaurant.

She looked everywhere for her tip money. “I’ve got some bills to pay,” she told me.

On another visit to her house, I met her mom, who offered that her daughter had a zippered wallet that was too small to contain all the things she kept in it. The cash must have slipped out.

I grew up in Catholic schools where a teacher once told us that “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Finding that money, I’ve concluded, was a gift to the Clark family. It introduced us to some cool neighbors down the street. And it may have sparked a friendship with a bright, sensitive, funny, enterprising young woman, who at a young age is working hard, helping her family and paying her bills.

(OK, dear readers, not counting in the pockets of old clothes or under the sofa cushions, where have you found lost money? )