The curious case of the abandoned cooler

I may have robbed a homeless person.  It isn’t quite as bad as that sounds, but I feel horrible about it nonetheless.

You see, I work in an area of Knoxville where it is not uncommon for us to encounter homeless persons.  As a non-profit organization, we go where the property values give us the best bang for our buck, and our headquarters is located on the teetering edge of an area with low property values, high crime, and high levels of homelessness.

It is what it is, as they say.

Personally, I generally enjoy the area.  I find that low-income neighborhoods frequently feel more alive than many high-income areas.  I suspect it’s because not every kid has an Xbox or PlayStation to sit in front of, so kids get out and play.  It reminds me of what the world was like when I was a kid – you played outside.

Still, we experience some, shall we say, “unique” occurrences in the area.

One such unusual occurrence began two weeks ago when I drove in to work on Friday and saw an assortment of items adjacent to one of our fleet vehicles parked in a neighboring bank’s lot.  (The bank kindly permits our staff to use the lot as overflow parking when needed.)  I didn’t think much of it:  A cooler, a couple of bags, and a pair of tennis shoes.  We had construction going on next door, and I suspected one of the construction workers had set their things down temporarily.  Weird that he would put it so close to our vehicle, but I still brushed it off.

Until… a member of our staff went to drive the vehicle and found it unlocked, and one of the items on the ground next to it was the car’s mileage log, a large 3-ring binder.  Now, we had a mystery, and just like those meddling kids in the groovy van, I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

Strolling across the street, I took a closer look at the items in the now-vacant parking spot.  As noted before, a cooler, but wheeled like a suitcase and cram packed with bottled water.  Not just tennis shoes, but an old pair of Air Jordan’s.  The bags were the canvas-like fabric shopping bags favored nowadays.  One contained a toothbrush, hairbrush, rolls of industrial-grade toilet paper not likely to have been offered for individual sale, a pack of cigarettes, and some Pop-Tarts and granola bars.  The other held a blood pressure cuff and load of medical records.

Anyone who works in a facility falling under the HIPAA compliance mandate can well imagine that my heart almost stopped, but a quick glance revealed no client or staff names, and a major heart attack was averted.  All the records, in fact, had only one name.

I grew more confused but began to conjecture the only scenario I felt might explain the situation.  Perhaps a homeless person slept in our car overnight and had to leave in a hurry for some reason.  The oddity was the inclusion of our mileage log.  I envisioned a situation where a person was caught in the vehicle by police and told to remove all of personal belongings, perhaps stored in the passenger seat while snoozing in the back.  This person mistakenly grabbed the mileage log (or purposefully – it would have held those medical records nicely) and stacked it alongside the other possessions.  But then what?  An arrest?

Or maybe the person had a medical emergency, and a passerby called an ambulance.   Perhaps this person was hospitalized right now and fretting over all of his worldly possessions lying curbside in a parking lot, getting rifled through by the nosy CFO of some local non-profit.

Don’t worry anonymous person, your stuff is safe with me.  I’ll admit, tempting though those Air Jordan’s might have been . . .

Sitting and contemplating what I imagined to be another human being’s entire worldly possessions, I mostly felt sad.  The care and organization of the stored items assured me they held value to someone.

But I also didn’t want the bank, a very good neighbor, believing we had left that mess in their parking lot.  I spoke with the Assistant Manager, who was as befuddled as me and had believed it belonged to the construction crew as well.  After agreeing how odd the situation was, we decided to leave everything there over the weekend in the hopes that the owner might reappear and reclaim it.  If not, I would see about getting everything removed and placed in our Dumpster.

I hoped all weekend that everything would be gone, reunited with a relieved owner, but when I arrived Monday, the cooler sat there same as before, except now empty, as were the bags, save for some trash left behind.  Even the Air Jordan’s were gone.

Someone had taken possession of everything, but clearly not the original owner.  I exhaled, even more saddened by the situation, and kept my promise, loading everything into the now empty cooler and rolling it to our nearby Dumpster.

Some part of me still aches for this person who may or may not even be living now but had still lost everything they had.  As I closed the Dumpster door sealing in that cooler, I thought of the three coolers I own, crammed into a garage packed with a bunch of other stuff underneath a house packed with even more, and I felt somehow both grateful and ashamed.


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