09 February 2017

If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?

by Brian Thornton

Okay on the last day of January, I needed to pick up some things at Costco.

You know. Like you do.

I had the day to myself (grading day–wife at work and son at school), so I headed for Costco early in the day, wanting to get my trip in before the crowds descended on the place like the proverbial locusts.

As I was getting out of my car I saw him out of the corner of my eye. A stocky guy, blond hair, medium height, coatless, no hat (It was cold) walking through the parking lot carrying something black and vaguely resembling a cross between a hoola hoop and a piece of rope, talking to people. I saw him peer in the direction of my car, and then, as I locked up and turned in the direction of Costco's front entrance, I heard, "Good morning."

I turned. There he was: standing not ten feet from me.

As soon as I turned he started talking: he was here on a trip from Yakima with his three kids. His car had broken down: the fan-belt. He held it aloft for me to see.

Like this.
And he was exactly nineteen bucks short of what he needed to get a replacement.

I told him the truth: I was sorry, but I didn't have any cash on me.

I rarely carry cash.

I wished him luck and turned once more in the direction of Costco's entrance. 

As I was turning away from him, the image of his hands struck me and stayed with me as I started across the parking lot.

They were the hands of a laborer. Large. Powerful. Covered in the kind of black you get on them when you've been working on an engine, no matter how clean.

A couple of contradictory thoughts ran through my mind: "What if he's really got three kids waiting in a car in need of a fanbelt?"

"He first approached from behind my car. I bought the car in Yakima, and the license plate holder would give him that piece of information. Is that why he mentioned coming from Yakima?"

And then I thought of those times in my twenties, after I got out of the Navy and went to college and was b-r-o-k-e most of the time, and *always* fixing something on my old, cheap cars.


And I couldn't get the image of his hands out of my head, and then the image of my own hands and how they had looked after a morning spent freezing in January in Spokane, just trying to get my piece of crap 1974 Dodge Dart to turn over just ONCE so I could get it to limp home. (It was mostly the electrical system that was shot on that car, in retrospect. Pain in the neck!).

And then I thought, "Jesus, Brian, who cares if the guy's lying about where he's from? Who cares if he's playing you at some level and to what extent he is? It's twenty bucks, not a kidney. How many times did you get lucky and have strangers take pity on you and help you out?"

And I thought about one of the times there were no generous strangers to give a hand. About the Chevy S-10 with what I later learned was a bad valve cover gasket leak, and how, on my way from Spokane to take my first full-time teaching job in Las Vegas, that truck seized up on me right by the side of the I-15 freeway on an August afternoon, five miles north of Cedar City, Utah.

I remembered slinging my laptop over my shoulder, and slogging every step of the five miles in to town to get it towed and looked at and eventually jerry-rigged so it would run and so that I could get it into Vegas, still hours away to the south.

I recalled how I'd stuck my thumb out every time I heard a car behind me, and how every single time that car passed without even slowing down. Every one of those cars had plates bearing the distinctive Utah beehive on them. And I recalled the four separate times some wise-ass in the passenger seat stuck their own thumb out in my direction as some sort of weird, mocking salute.
The truck stop in Cedar City where I got a tow truck after a nice, five-mile long hike through a rain storm.

Couldn't they see my broken down truck a mile, then two miles, then three, then four miles back? Couldn't they put two and two together that I was walking down the highway for a reason?

And then, with about two miles to go, it started to rain.

"Family-friendly Utah."


And like that, I snapped back to the present, turned on my heel and got the guy's attention. He was standing there where I'd left him, looking around and looking like he hadn't a friend in the world. I told him to come with me.

Costco has a cash machine. As we walked across the lot toward it, he thanked me several times, and then asked how I was doing that day.

You know, like you do.

I looked up at the sky. It looked like rain.

"Doing great today," I said.


  1. I tend to be skeptical too, Brian. But like you said, it's twenty bucks, not a kidney. And I'm sure it made both of your days.

  2. Good story. Made me think and feel something. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. A great day indeed.

    It's sad that modern life has made us so ( often justly) suspicious.

  4. Hey, Bud, good heart felt story. Every case is different, and yep it is difficult to tell which ones are real without digging into them. I've seen the ones who really had bad circumstances, and I've watched the ones begging on the corner while eating a brand name sub sandwich out of a paper bag while drinking a large Starbuck's coffee out of a name brand cardboard cup and later walk to their brand new shiny car and drive away. Also seen the idiot who brags to the local newspaper about how he makes $60,000 a year begging at a certain off ramp, so why work. These latter ones make it even harder for the ones who really need assistance.

    Like I said, every case is different. Unless you can somehow get involved or see behind the scene, all you can rely on is your senses and your gut feeling.

    Good for you.

  5. Yeah, a couple of months ago a woman walked up to me when I was loading groceries into our car at Aldi's. She asked if I could give her $1 bills in exchange for quarters, handing me what she said was $4 worth. So I handed her four $1 bills & discovered she'd only given me $3 in quarters. Caught up with her across the parking lot whereupon she engaged me in a sob story & I ended up giving her some little cakes I had bought & told her she could keep the money.

    It wouldn't have been so bad except my husband gave me some hell about it ... then a week or two later he & I were at a Chinese place & some panhandler told him a tall tale. He gave the man twice as much money as I had given the woman in the Aldi's parking lot.

    Actually I thought fan belts only cost a couple of dollars or so. You could have observed which vehicle was his & whether there were three kids in it or not.

  6. Good story, Brian.

    Couple of decades ago there was a story in our paper about a couple who had been conning people all over town with a sob story. I worked with an older man who was a part time Baptist minister. "They came to me," he said, with a shrug. "I figured they were lying, but I gave them some money. It's part of the job."

  7. Way to go, Brian! I'm proud of you.


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