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A man for Diogenes

IT was several moments before I noticed the envelope on the New York subway seat next to me last month. Had it not been for the Bank Leumi letterhead it would not have registered in my consciousness at all. I happen to be a client of Bank Leumi in Jerusalem, where I live, and thought that the envelope might have fallen out of my tote bag, although I couldn't remember having seen it before. It bore no address and seemed to be empty. Idly turning it over, I saw that it was unsealed and contained what seemed to be advertising fliers in the form of a bank check - a yellow ``original'' and a white copy. The check looked strikingly real and the date, I noted with puzzlement, was that day's. The train was pulling into my station and I stuffed the envelope into my bag.

From my brother's house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I was staying, I called the head office of Bank Leumi in New York and asked to speak to an executive. When a secretary came on, I said I had just found what seemed to be a valid Bank Leumi check on the subway and gave the names of the two companies cited on it - one that had drawn the money and the other to whom it was being paid. The sum, I said, was $341,000.

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In the stony silence, I thought I could see the secretary wearily shutting her eyes and wondering whether to humor me or hang up. ``There are two signatures,'' I continued. When I gave the more legible of the first names, I thought I heard a gasp. The secretary suggested what the second name might be and I could indeed make it out. Together we deciphered the second signature. ``Someone will call you back in a few minutes,'' she said.

The lawyer who called sounded primed for litigation. ``I understand that you found a bank check in the subway. Are you prepared to return it to its rightful owner?'' He seemed fully prepared to deal with a negative reply. Satisfied that there was no attempt at extortion, he relaxed. ``There's a roomful of lawyers here waiting to complete a real estate deal. If it's all right, someone will come over to pick the check up.'' THERE was no need to examine the credentials of the man who arrived half an hour later. He was about 6 feet, 5 inches, well dressed, and bore the authoritative air of a corporate lawyer. ``There's a bunch of nervous people waiting for this downstairs,'' he said. The check had been left in the subway, he said, by a messenger.

After checking the contents of the envelope, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a bill. ``The people at the bank would like you to have this.'' He seemed somewhat embarrassed, as if uncertain whether the amount was enough or whether one offers a gratuity at all to someone living in a building with a doorman.

``That's not necessary,'' I said unconvincingly.

``No, the people at the bank would like you to have it. You can contribute it somewhere if you like.'' He shoved the money under a book on the table and took his leave. It was a $50 bill. Since the check was negotiable only by the parties named on it and I could not have cashed it if I wished, the reward was generous. I, fortunately, had been spared the temptation a more negotiable check might have posed.

Celebrating the rewards of virtue in a local restaurant afterward, it occurred to me that the most notable thing had not been that I found the money but that someone in authority had been willing to have it transported by subway - in an unsealed envelope. I was born and raised in New York City, and during the past two decades have, during visits every three years or so, perceived the city's ambiance steadily shifting. In more recent visits, I have felt the city turning perceptibly gentler and more at ease with itself.

The cure is still plainly far from complete, but the city now seems closer to the cutting edge of civilization than to its dumping ground.

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Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the incident was that it took place in an air-conditioned subway car that was free from graffiti and in which the only litter was a check for a third of a million dollars. Ten years ago, that vision would have been fantasy enough - even without the check.

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