The recurring tropes of the long-lost-wallet story.

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May 4 2010 10:11 AM

Long-Lost Wallets

They turn up more often than you think.

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The owners were old men by then—aloof and rumpled veterans in retirement homes or on oxygen machines. One had recently had a stroke—a quiet guy who never felt he had anything interesting to say to his four grown kids. But now, as he fingered his old Social Security card and dog tag, the stories suddenly started pouring out of him. "This has been a real boost for Bob," his wife told the Los Angeles Times. "It's as though a piece of time has come back to greet him again with memories of the old days, and better times."

In the past, these kinds of oddities occasionally became national news, but they generally stayed local and were eventually forgotten. Within the cloistered little villages of local media, every return of a long-lost wallet could stand unchallenged as a breathtakingly singular event. But in age of the Web, these lesser miracles are now aggregated, archived, and searchable. With a little persistence, you can spend a whole afternoon reading long-lost-wallet stories. But the more long-lost-wallet stories you read—the further your perspective zooms out from that of the people actually living them—the more you see the themes and details repeating themselves. The characters ossify into types—the enterprising good Samaritan, the tickled old recipient. The phenomenon is exposed as not so phenomenal, and you can start to feel deflated, wondering if maybe none of these people are as blessed or as special as they think they are—and, by extension, if maybe none of us are, either.

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Sometime last winter, I started to get a little cynical. The news alerts kept coming, but I stopped clicking through to the links. But then I realized: It's ridiculous to let the frequent occurrence of an event make that event feel less miraculous. So I've been trying, instead, to think of all these long-lost-wallet stories as evidence that there are altruistic little miracles happening around us all the time.

The trick is not to think of these stories from the point of view of the wallet owner, but from the point of view of whoever finds the wallet, returns it, and then carries on with their day. Like the person in a town in southern Sweden who somehow recovered the wallet Gulli Wihlborg lost while riding her bicycle as an 18-year-old in 1963, found Wihlborg's current address, and put the wallet in an envelope with an anonymous note. The money—$6.17 in Swedish kronor—was still inside. The note read: "Dear Gulli, you should never give up hope."

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Correction, May 4, 2010: This article originally stated that the wallet had been returned to Bryant's ancestors. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He presented an earlier version of this piece at Issue 3 of the "live magazine" Pop Up Magazine in San Francisco last month.