Under the canopy at the T.J. Maxx store, Glen James sat among the shopping carts, shaded from the late-summer sun. As shoppers bustled through the South Bay plaza Saturday, James proofread a letter, resting on the bag he brings with him when he panhandles.
As he read, James noticed a young man nearby, sitting on an overturned carriage. He had a bag, too, a black backpack at his feet. James went back to his letter.
When James looked up again, the man was gone. But his bag was still there.
After a time, James went over to see what had been left behind. Inside, he found $2,400 in cash and nearly $40,000 in travelers checks, along with a passport and personal papers. For a homeless man who subsists on food stamps and spare change, it was a staggering sum, maybe even a chance at a new life.
But James, a slight, bespectacled man in his mid-50s who says he has been homeless for five years, said the thought of keeping the money never crossed his mind.
“Even if I were desperate for money, I would not have kept even a penny of the money found,” he said Monday in a handwritten statement. “God has always very well looked after me.”
James immediately flagged down police, who in short order returned the bag to its owner, a student visiting Boston from China. James, a man who lives in a homeless shelter and relies on charity for change to wash his clothes, had returned a small fortune without a second thought.
For his actions, James received a citation Monday at Boston police headquarters, where Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis praised his “extraordinary show of character and honesty.”
“It really is a remarkable tribute to him,” Davis said.
James, who has a speech impediment, said little at the ceremony, saying he was self-conscious about his stutter. As cameras flashed, he smiled nervously and appeared somewhat overwhelmed.
But when asked how he felt about returning so much money, he did not pause.
“Very, very good,” he said, letting loose a hearty laugh.
In his statement, James wrote about how he found the money and a bit about himself. He had worked at a courthouse for 13 years as a file clerk, he said, before being fired. On Monday, the courts could not immediately confirm his employment. James could have gotten another job, he said, but he suffers from an inner-ear disorder that causes prolonged vertigo spells.
“The shelter is the perfect living situation with someone who has Meniere’s disease,” he wrote. “There are many people in the shelter to attend to me.”
James said he has siblings and other relatives he could live with, but does not want to burden them.
He said he had not met the man whose bag he found, but said he was “very glad to make sure” it was returned to him safely.
James said he receives the “blessing” of food stamps and panhandles for money for laundry, transportation, and “odds and ends.” Just having a little money, he said, can make all the difference.
“It’s just nice to have some money in one’s pockets so that as a homeless man I don’t feel absolutely broke all the time.”
James thanked all the people who have given him spare change, including mayoral candidate Charles Yancey, who had dropped a total of $7 into his cup.
James’s story compelled Ethan Whittington, a 27-year-old from Midlothian, Va., who has never been to Boston, to launch a fund for James at www.gofundme.com/4by2as . Within the first four hours, Whittington’s campaign raised $3,152, which he plans to deliver to James.
After receiving the backpack from James, police notified mall security. They were later contacted by an employee at Best Buy, who said a customer had told them he had lost his backpack containing a large sum of money.
The owner was positively identified by his passport, police said.
As he left the ceremony at police headquarters, James took deliberate steps, his eyes fixed on the floor. Then employees watching from behind their desks stood and applauded. His eyes widened, and he nodded his thanks.
Outside the station, James was asked if there was anything he would like, anything at all.
As he got into a police cruiser that would take him back to the shelter, he said, “No war.”Matt Lee of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.