The Umbrella Experiment

What is the different ingredient between the United States, where I live, and say, Amsterdam? If I leave a bicycle unattended and unlocked to something solid in many places in the U.S., there is a better-than-even chance it will be gone when I return. In Amsterdam and hundreds of other cities, there are bike-sharing programs that allow users to grab a bike, ride it where they want to go, and then leave it in the rack for another user. Theft and vandalism are rare.

This system could work with a lot of other things. How about umbrellas? I visit Himeji, a medium-sized city in central Japan, fairly often. At my favorite hotel, there’s a rack of umbrellas by the bellman’s desk. The individual slots have locks, but I rarely see them used. If it’s raining, you can just ask the bellman if you can borrow an umbrella — or if he’s not there, just grab one. All you have to do is bring it back. Apparently, almost everyone does. I have seen similar systems in North America, but I have also seen them abandoned when racks ended up…eventually empty.

I don’t consider myself an unrealistic, or overly idealistic, person. I know by this age that people aren’t perfect, and it can be hard for them to change. Perhaps that’s why I feel naive at not being able to shake off my amazement that so many people seem just fine with taking things that do not belong to them — as long as they can do it without getting caught.

Whew. Still there.

Think about it: one of the first things we learn as our parents build our moral framework is that certain things belong to you, and others do not. Using the things that do not requires a different set of procedures. Just taking is wrong, or at least unmannerly. Instead of simply possessing Rachel’s book, as we would do with our Mr. Bear, we must ask Rachel, “May I please read your book?” For people who master this technique — that is, most of us — things go well.

Others, it seems, have an on-off switch installed on this skill. Cases in point: some years back, I left an iPod (32G!) on an airplane, in a seatback pocket. Twenty steps from the arrival gate, I remembered. When I went back to the empty plane, it was nowhere to be found. In the space of five minutes.

Analyze: It was not visible; it was, instead, concealed in a seatback pocket. So either a passenger deplaning behind me, or an airline cleaning employee, had to have seen me using it or discovered it in the seatback pocket (deep in that pocket). Result: possession becomes nine-tenths of their world view. The vain exercise of contacting the airline lost-and-found office couldn’t have been vainer.

True, it was foolish of me to leave the iPod. But idiocy on my part or not, the iPod was clearly not the property of whoever took it. Taking it and not returning it to some authority was morally wrong. But someone did it. Because they wanted to. And they can live with themselves, presumably. Why?

Lest you think this problem has a socioeconomic predictor, think again. During my time on the media side of the golf industry, it was my job to report on a lot of things, including interesting accessories for golf. One product that I saw more frequently over the years was security locks on golf bags and devices for locking the bags to posts and racks, like bicycles. Why? Was there a rash of thefts at local courses?

No. Turns out too many people were losing expensive sets of clubs at some of the top golf resorts in America. Yes, places you could afford only if you were already very wealthy. I called around; none of these top resorts had problems with employee theft rings. There was only one conclusion: millionaires were actually stealing clubs when the bag boys weren’t looking, or just saying, “Those are my Callaways, yes,” while the bag boy put them in the trunk. (What’s the bag boy going to do, contradict the guy and risk his tip? Or job?) Guy who can afford just about anything drives off with $2,000 in free clubs, and no one is the wiser…until Mr. Davis comes out looking for his Callaways.

I remain befuddled at the idea that adults could be like this. Do some people never outgrow the 7-year-old’s thrill at filching an apple from the grocer’s bin? Or are they just…bad people?

I needed an experiment, a test, to help me firm up my thoughts on this. During Tropical Storm Debby, we stopped at our usual spot for Sunday brunch after church. Not wanting to drip all over the floor inside, I decided to leave my umbrella by the door outside…with some trepidation. But I did it. After all, I have a lot of umbrellas, prizes from charity tournaments and the like. What did I have to lose?

After omelets…still there. Good.

So why am I not any more confident about next time? — Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr (so don’t steal this — O.K.?)

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One thought on “The Umbrella Experiment

  1. Susan says:

    Portland actually used to have a bike-sharing program. They painted the bikes bright yellow, both to prevent theft and to make the program noticeable. I think the city started with a few hundred bikes, which were all gone within just a couple of months. Sigh.

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