I’m trapped in a private moment, not even one I want to be in. A woman just walked by that bears a striking resemblance to an ex-girlfriend. It’s like when you drive past a bad accident, you don’t want to see anything, but you look all the same. I’m looking, fingers crossed that it isn’t her. A man, with what must be twenty years on me, stops me. At first I’m confused, like I said I was in this private moment and building up a defense for the possible oh god moment if it really is her and she wants to talk for some reason.
The last thing I’m ready for is an aging cowboy, dressed in denim from head to toe and thick silver stubble. His voice is low, too quiet, and I only hear him just enough to stop – not enough to know what it is he’s saying. He must recognize it in my face, as he softly begins anew.
“I’m real sorry, I hate to even ask,” he says. This is a suburb, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard this one, but my time in poorer neighborhoods lets me recognize this preamble immediately. I start to pat my pockets before he’s even asked. “I’m on my way to Dallas, on my last few gallons of gas…” he adds. He’s in the middle of a divorce, out of cash, and nearly red in the face. It took nerve to ask for anything. I privately wonder if the Obama sticker on my car makes it easier to ask.
“I don’t generally have cash,” I tell him solemnly, which is the truth. I tell him to hold on as I dig through the console, finding him every last penny. It can’t amount too much and I say so. I apologize that it isn’t more and he half smiles and ducks his head. He doesn’t want me to look him in the eyes.
I get in my car and start to drive away, noticing that he’s doing the same. He drives to the McDonald’s that was no more than fifty yards away and I feel a vein twitch in my right temple. From where we’d spoken there was a grocery store within walking distance and a gas station just as far as the McDonald’s, in the opposite direction.
I get mad. I wonder if I should have insisted on buying him gas at the pump. I wonder if I should have just given him some of the groceries I just purchased. I wonder if I should have given him anything at all.
I’m putting too much on this one man’s decision. I give money because it’s the right thing to do, not because every recipient will make the perfect decision. I give because the world needs a little more kindness in it every day, not because I can fix everyone. We can’t always fix things, but we can always try to help.