How honest is Aspen?
ASPEN – I just wanted someone to steal my wallet.At least that was the plan when photographer Paul Conrad and I set out on our experiment on a sunny afternoon last week. We chose four high-traffic areas in Aspen – the post office, Gondola Plaza, City Market and the Cooper Avenue mall – and dropped the bait: a loaded wallet.Paul was armed with a telephoto lens and I had a pen and notebook. We sat in the shadows to watch what happened. We wanted to see how honest Aspenites are.What would you do if you found a wallet on the sidewalk? Would someone steal the money? Is there a would-be identity thief in our midst?First we rigged the wallet, a $10 black “pleather” number we bought from the second floor of Carl’s Pharmacy.Next we did what we could to make it look real. We scuffed the wallet on the sidewalk, rubbed the shiny pleather with a little whiteout to dull the sheen and tossed the wallet around, giving some of our office-workers a chance to stomp on it.Next we filled the wallet with everything from a canceled Massachusetts driver’s license to a library card to an old bank statement, a to-do list, and a fortune from a fortune cookie.The wallet contained $7 in cash.Enticing enough for you, yet?
After waiting in front of the post office for what seemed like an eternity, Kent Jardine bounded from his truck, spotted the wallet, and without missing a beat, snatched it up and walked it inside, handing it to the post office workers behind the counter.”Are you kidding me?” Jardine said when we told him about our game. “This is a setup?”The thought never crossed Jardine’s mind to take the wallet, he said, and he didn’t even look to see how much money was inside. He just saw the out-of-state license and took it to the desk.”I felt sorry for the poor guy that dropped it,” Jardine said, adding that he once found a money pouch with $2,500 – a night’s bankroll from a restaurant – and returned it.Jardine, who’d recently moved from Nebraska, wasn’t the only honest Aspenite at the post office that day.Moments later, after carefully watching to ensure I wasn’t spotted, I dropped the wallet again, this time a little closer to the door, and caught Bob Gross, who runs a window-blind-installation business in Aspen. Gross too didn’t hesitate to pick up the wallet, but took a minute to look inside, spotted the cell-phone number on the card and called.”I’m right behind you,” I said, and after another “Candid Camera” moment, Gross handed back the wallet, saying “I think most people try to be honest … most people will do the right thing.”Gross was right about Annie Denver, who walked right past me when she found the wallet. Denver, the former wife of musician John Denver, took the wallet right to the post office counter.”I think Aspen’s a really honest place,” Denver said.I was frustrated.Where’s the chicanery, the dishonesty? Where’s the guy who looks around, tugs the bills out of the wallet, drops it on the ground and runs away? Where’s our opportunity to publish the blurred-out face of the perpetrator?This town’s lame, I thought.
I regrouped and headed to a new location – the Gondola Plaza at the base of Aspen Mountain – hardly the bad side of town, but busy enough that people might just be tempted to slip off with the goods.
Chris McMullen, a ski concierge at The Little Nell, has experience with lost goods and knew exactly what to do when he found the wallet. He saw the library card, figured the wallet belonged to a local and took it right to the Gondola Plaza information counter.”I’ve lost my wallet before,” McMullen said. He knows firsthand what a pain it is to cancel credit cards and get a new license.Kristin Wright, who works the info counter where McMullen returned the wallet, said she doesn’t have a lot of lost wallets – most people stuff credit cards and cash into the jacket of ski coats when hitting the slopes – but she gets lots of cell phones, and most people are able to reconnect with their belongings.Spencer Gaddis and Veronique Waeber, two seasonal workers also from The Little Nell, didn’t hesitate to return the wallet.”I would want someone to do the same for me,” Gaddis said.Aspenite Kevin Paddon took a more pragmatic view. “What you need to make a difference in this town wouldn’t fit in a wallet,” he said. Paddon didn’t even look inside the thin wallet when he found it.Paddon is always shocked when there’s any kind of theft in such an idyllic mountain community, he said. “It’s a bummer. It kind of brings you down to the rest of the world” and makes you lock doors and watch out for belongings in a way he’s not used to doing in Aspen, he said.Brian Miller took the longest time to deliberate about what to do with the wallet. “I figured it’s bad karma,” said Brian Miller about taking the wallet.Miller was talking on the phone when he first sat on the bench next to the wallet. He picked up our bait, examined the contents, then set it down as if to ignore it, then picked it up again.Standing in the shadows near Starbucks, we thought we might have found our first crook. But apparently Miller was just listening to advice from his friend on the other end of the line, who told him to look for a phone number in the wallet.Miller said he’d once had a snowboard stolen at the end-of-season party at Aspen Highlands, but later found it, adding that springtime, when many young Aspenites are bugging out for the end of the season, might mean a rise in thefts.Hmmm, Paul and I thought, perhaps we’re one step closer to the black heart of Aspen.
The real challenge in the heavily trafficked area in front of City Market was dropping the wallet without being spotted.One older lady saw me pretending to tie my shoelace and walk away, leaving the wallet in the spot. “Young man, you dropped your wallet!” she said.But I found a lull in the traffic and deftly dropped the billfold. Robert Reith, a Roaring Fork Transit Authority driver, was the first to pick it up; he went right to the counter inside the store without even looking inside.”You open it up and temptation strikes,” he said. That’s why he beelined for the counter.Reith regularly finds cell phones and some wallets on his bus and said most people get their belongings back.”I still have faith that people are pretty honest,” Reith said.One after another, City Market shoppers marched the wallet right back into the store – Diane Christianson, a visitor from Alabama, then Maria Soriano, an employee of the store.Next the Cooper Avenue Mall. I dropped the wallet near the Red Onion restaurant. And that’s when we were found out.”Is this a trick?” hollered Kristin Farr of Breckenridge, to no one in particular. She was strolling the mall on a shopping day with her sister, Jentry Lee, from Boulder.As Farr glanced around for hidden cameras, I approached her. She said the oversized writing of my cell phone number on the business card was a dead giveaway.But no matter what, she would have returned it, she said. “Definitely some good karma would’ve come our way.””I don’t think people in Aspen need somebody else’s wallet,” her sister added.