Forget Your Wallet, Go to Jail

When I read the story about the Italian tourist who was arrested and spent the night in jail after forgetting his wallet at a trendy, New York Steakhouse, I could really relate.

Ironically, earlier that day I had been crossing a $5 toll bridge from Hayward to go to San Francisco, when I discovered I didn't have the $5 bill I thought was in my wallet. I had only a little over $4 in change, but experienced very different results. The two stories got me thinking about what we should be doing as a society when such things happen.

The story about the Italian tourist has been all over the news, and probably at this point the Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse is regretting that it called the police on the hapless tourist, since the negative publicity could well cost it far more in lost business than the $208.77 bill, which the tourist offered to pay for in various ways. There is even a debate started on a Zagat blog about what a restaurant should do if someone forgets their cash. Ironically, the Italian tourist, Graziano Graziussi, is a lawyer from Naples, so if anyone is in a position to sue over what happened, he probably could easily do so.

Basically, what happened is that Grziussi had gone to the steakhouse on 3rd Avenue near 49th in central Manhattan for a traditional meal. But after racking up a $208.77 bill, he discovered he had forgotten his wallet. So he couldn't pay the bill, and he offered to pay it by retrieving his wallet at his hotel. He even offered to leave his iPhone worth about $500 and vital to his business or go back to his hotel with a busboy, but the restaurant decided no dice and called the police. When the police arrived, Graziussi even asked for an escort to his hotel. But after telling him, "We're not a taxi service," the police officer took him to jail, where he spent the night, though a judge dismissed the case the next day after Graziussi promised to return to court to pay the bill the following week.

Needless to say, the case seems an example of poor customer service in the extreme, and the blogosphere seems to have come down strongly on the side of the hapless tourist. As one user Laurkir commented at the end of the ABC News Article by Kevin Dolak, "Seriously? Everyone forgets something once in a while. The restaurant was totally out of line here as were the police for detaining the man." Brian P. had this to say: "Dude was willing to leave his $600 phone behind to ensure he was coming back to pay the bill... Leave it to New York to be rude and inconsiderate." And Yourallguilty observed: "My bet is that any staff who accompanied the tourist back to the hotel would not only have solved the problem, but would have ended up with a huge tip. People forget the real value of customer service."

I will heartily second that last remark, after what happened in my own case. As I approached the toll booth and pulled out my wallet, I discovered that instead of having a $5 bill and some change, I only had two $1 bills and some quarters, dimes and nickels, totaling about $4.25. So what could I do? I offered to pay by credit card or check, but the bridge didn't accept either, and the toll taker at first suggested I could go back to an ATM in town, but they would charge me $25. I had visions of spending an hour searching around just to find one -- all for about 75 cents.

I think I must have seemed very desperate as I searched around my car to see if I had any more change hiding there and moaned "What can I do?," when the toll taker asked if I had any other change, even pennies, and I scrounged around and found about another 6 cents. Then, I handed everything over, and after he spread it out, he said, "Okay, you can go," and he handed me a $5 ticket. Presumably he decided to contribute the additional 69 cents himself, and later that night when I found another quarter and penny hidden deep in my wallet, I felt bad that I wasn't able to give that to the toll taker, too.

In any case, my deepest thanks go out to that toll taker for the kind way he handled my situation in contrast to the by-the-book approach of the steakhouse in New York in dealing with the tourist. And perhaps there's a lesson here for our society. In this day of increasing fears about crime, we are too ready to think in terms of rules and regulations, crime, and punishment, rather than being ready to adjust to a situation which isn't a crime, but an honest mistake, such as forgetting a wallet or not having as much money as one expects in one's wallet. In turn, such adjusting is what it takes to provide good customer service to help rectify such a mistake rather than thinking of it as a crime and escalating what happened into a police matter. After all, maybe sometimes you might make a mistake, and you would like someone to help you out, not call the police to make an arrest.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings