Tuesday, October 05, 2010

People Can Surprise You

Somehow, during our drive back from seeing our freshman son at college on Sunday, I was reminded of an incident a dozen years back that brought a smile to my face, and a sense of gratitude for the good in people. How they can surprise you.

I’ve written about it before, but it was a long time ago, and the experience still blows me away. Somewhere out there is a very generous, sensitive, discreet soul who once managed a Wendy’s on Sandy Boulevard in Portland.

The story begins with a trip to Jiffy Lube with our then five year-old son and two year-old daughter. As usual at that time, I was darting here and there, errands galore, and getting the oil and other mysterious fluids checked on the car was on my list. There was going to be a wait, and we began by congregating in the tiny area meant for customers, the three of us taking up almost every square inch.

And then someone announced that he or she was hungry. Which one doesn’t matter now. What mattered then was that they both had the metabolism of a hummingbird, and that by the time either expressed a desire for food, we were on the edge of a major meltdown. I looked around, panicking. I was on foot, with two small kids, who needed food NOW.

There was a Wendy’s a couple blocks down. Phew, I thought, this will be okay. And off we toddled, swinging into the place sure that all would be right in the world (okay, maybe that was just me, the kids might have had their doubts). But then I noticed the sign that said “cash only.”

Cash. I never had cash. This is what debit cards are for. But they didn’t take them. Or checks. I rifled through my purse, pulling out every stray coin I could find. I think it added up to a dollar ninety-nine. And now how to make that stretch to feed two kids.

Making a decision about food when you’re already starving is difficult. I remember suffering through it as a child, often going hungry because the decision process was so painful. Anxiety disorder is a cruel mistress. Our children were equally baffled by the option of fries or burger, when what they’d like was both with a drink besides.

I got frustrated, they got frustrated, I didn’t want to have a brouhaha right there at the counter in Wendy’s so we went outside and started walking back to the car. I wasn’t going to feed my uncooperative offspring if they were going to be umm, rude about it. But as usual with this tactic, they came up with a compromise about halfway across the parking lot.

So we returned to the Wendy’s, ordering a burger for them to share. It was the manager who took our order. The place was empty and she’d probably sent the other employees home. She said she’d wrap the half-burgers separately to make it easier and bring our order right out.

She arrived shortly with a tray. On it were two burgers, whole ones, and two small fries. Then she squatted down next to me, and said in a low voice so that only I could hear, “Can I get you anything to eat, too?”

It took me a moment to figure out what was going on. Registering that not only had we struggled over how to make not quite two dollars adequate in front of her, but that I was wearing holey jeans and my favorite green corduroy jacket that was second-hand when I bought it and had since sustained a tear down the side that I hadn’t had time to fix.

She thought I didn’t have enough money to feed the kids. Or myself. And she was giving us food in addition to our order and offering more in a way that allowed me to keep my dignity while accepting her charity. Wow. I uttered a quiet “no thank you” and she asked me if I was sure. I assured her with a smile that I was sure and thanked her profusely.

It didn’t seem right to tell her I was reasonably middle class and simply lacked cash at that moment and couldn’t get to an ATM while my car was being lubed. I hope I thanked her enough.

I think of her from time to time. How she extended kindness to our family that day. I wonder how often she’d done that—offered a helping hand. It’s those kind of everyday acts of kindness that help us over the rougher hurdles. It’s a story I felt needed repeating.


Morgan Hunt said...

I experienced a similarly moving act of charity several days after 9/11, when my car was running on fumes, the credit card machine in the gas station where I pulled in was broken, and I had no cash on me. An obviously Middle Eastern man came to my rescue, pumping $20 of gas into my tank. This was when I was in San Diego, living about 6 blocks from the apartment building where one of the hijackers lived. There was plenty of hostility toward Muslims in that neighborhood at the time. I've never forgotten that man's deep kindness. Thanks for sharing your story, Beren. We need to hear about the good hearts in the world, too.

Anonymous said...

Very touching. Lovely when the unexpected happens!