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On The GOP Trail, The Serendipity Of A Lost Wallet

It's Jan. 1.

I'm en route to Iowa to cover the caucuses. I'm a novice reporter and NPR editors trusted me to tag along.

At my layover in Minneapolis, I reach into my pocket to pay for a chai tea latte and — wait — where's my wallet? I can't find my wallet. I double, triple, quadruple check.

I run back to the gate. "Ma'am, I think my wallet fell out of my coat in overhead. Seat 20B." She checks it out. Negative. It's not there.

I have never, ever lost my wallet. Now, the first day of 2012, my very first invite to travel for reporting; I've screwed up everything.

Just before I burst into tears, my eye catches a golden sign down the walkway. I sprint toward the big black letters: Delta Sky Club. Members only.

I am not a Sky Club member, but I need the Sky Club treatment. I tell them everything. They start speed-dialing: gate attendant, police, TSA.

I don't have a credit card, so they waive the fee and buy time by putting me on a later flight.

Two hours later, still no wallet. I had planned to fly into Omaha and drive two hours to Des Moines. I called three car rental companies. No one rents without a license. The Delta team urges me to turn around.

I call my editor. "Neal, tell me what do to. Keep going or turn back?" He doesn't hesitate: "That's an absurd question. You've gotten this far. Keep going!"

Right before I leave Delta, the crew's mother hen gives me a care package: apple juice, yogurt, bagels. And, out of her own wallet, two $20s.

Then she adds: "Now honey, remember your goal." Yes, I think, my goal is to be a reporting machine. She finishes her thought: "You've got to become a Sky Club member."

Yes. Obviously.

I get to Omaha at midnight. Sure enough, no one's renting me a car, but the Hertz guy feels so bad, he offers to drop me off at the Greyhound station. There's a 5:30 a.m. bus to Des Moines.

We roll through the dark, quiet streets. He breaks the silence: "Hey, you see that knife on the dashboard?"

Oh. My. God. Aarti, you hopped into a car with a stranger at 1 in the morning and didn't notice the switchblade right in front of you?

He finishes his thought: "Take it. The Greyhound isn't safe."

I get to Des Moines without a single stabbing. My editor gives me two $20s. My co-worker gives me five more. People give me rides to all my reporting sites. My big sister makes me laugh: "Whoever got your wallet is gonna be so disappointed. You can't buy a meal at Denny's with your credit limit."

I get to file four news spots, and see Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. (At Paul's press conference, I think about how my whole ordeal — from Delta alms to Greyhound self-defense — is the libertarian ideal brought to life.) For my return flight, TSA lets me through with only my press credentials and my sob story.

Back in D.C., I get a strange email from a man named Hug. My license is at Newark airport; he's expressing it back to me.

I smile at the genius of 2012. The year that's just begun is already reminding me of the kindness of strangers.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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