The man’s eyes darted around the room as he settled down at a table in the McDonalds on Saint Louis. Every tiny sound made him jump, which was the only interruption to the constant shivering from deep in his bones. His fingerless gloves were a punchline to some cruel joke about avoiding frostbite, and his tattered overcoat was a sieve for the unyielding frosty wind swirling just outside the door.
I asked where his home was and he favored me with an ironic grin. His food sat in front of him untouched as he pondered how to answer my question. At last, he plucked a steaming hot fry from its sleeve and considered it briefly before cramming it in his mouth.
“You mean right now?” he asked. “You’re looking at it.”
My confusion must have been apparent as I processed this statement, so he held up one hand and said, “I don’t have one. Home is wherever I am when someone asks.”
He told of walking most of the way from Kentucky to Arkansas to collect on what he believed was the promise of a job at a local horse farm. When he gave me the name of the person he spoke with, I suspected right away that something was not right with this story. After speaking with that person privately, it was confirmed that there was no job offer and I knew this situation had to be handled delicately.
I encountered dozens of indigent persons in my role as the chaplain for the Independence County Sheriff’s Office, but this encounter initially tripped my danger alarm. After making sure he was not a fugitive from justice, I arranged to give him shelter outside town for a couple of days. A local business donated some food vouchers, and the person he came to apply for a job with anonymously donated several hundred dollars to clothe him.
He set out on foot a couple of days later headed north. I got a call from him several months later and he reported that he was settled in Missouri—at a horse farm of course—and he had worked steadily for two months. He had a place to live, a little car to drive to and from work, and he was attending church. He needed one more favor from me, though.
“I have never had anything in my life,” he said with a cracked voice. “I was homeless most of my life and wasn’t sure whether I should even keep living when I got to Batesville. Now I have a place to lay down at night, food to eat, and clothes to wear that I can be proud of. But there’s still something missing.”
I tensed as I tried to guess where this was headed. He choked back a sob and continued.
“Several people in Batesville showed me a kindness and generosity that no one else ever has,” he said. “I was always the poor, dirty bum and most people wouldn’t give me a second look. Now that I have a solid job, I want to do something too. Can I send you some money to help the next person that wanders into town? It isn’t much, but I want to give what I can.”
I gave him a P.O. Box address, and three weeks later an envelope came that contained three $20 bills. That afternoon, I got another call from the Sheriff’s office that someone needed help.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I’m going to ask you to do something that many people consider hard — sometimes even impossible. I’m going to ask you to take a look at the world that exists outside of the 3-foot radius around you.
We travel through this world with to-do lists rattling around in our brains. We have people to take care of that we call “family” and we have responsibilities such as paying bills, feeding the kids, showing up for work, gassing up the car. Life can get so busy that we sometimes forget that, besides our immediate families, there are also, like, 7 billion other people on this planet.
I went to the grocery store yesterday because my family needed to be taken care of. We already had a houseful of groceries, but what we did not have was liquid dish soap and laundry detergent. Since this was a quick trip for two items, the decision was made that I could be trusted with this task, so off I went. I hate going to the grocery store, especially when I only need a couple of things. I’m not sure if this is company policy or just the way things usually shake out, but the store around the corner from my house is usually packed wall-to-wall with shoppers all trying to negotiate two checkout stands with baskets full of …whatever they came to get. Sure enough, I walked in the door and the roiling sea of humanity in that place slightly nauseated me.
Because I am no good at shopping, it took me something like 10 minutes to find the aisle that contains the household items I came to buy. It took me another few minutes to wedge my way between the shopping carts randomly — yet impressively — arranged in the aisle in a crude herringbone formation as their operators jostled around each other to reach this thing or that. I made my selections and turned to go to the express checkout lane in the hope — futile, it turned out — that I could sail through there and out the door before the turn of midnight. That line was backed up from the front of the store to the dairy section in the back, so I guessed this was not going to be a good afternoon for me.
I almost did the typical guy thing, which is putting the items back and just telling my family they were out of luck on cleaning the kitchen for at least another day. This little voice (that sounded curiously like my wife’s) demanded that I continue this mission if I knew what was good for me. I chose a shorter line, albeit one in which the people had baskets overflowing with — I don’t know. Everything in the store? I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
As I stood there hating life, this lady in front of me with a full basket turned, saw me holding a bottle of liquid dish soap and a jug of laundry detergent, and frowned. I tensed up, thinking her facial expression was about to bring a world of pain between us. She moved a few inches to her right and motioned me to go in front of her. That move was so unexpected that I froze, not knowing what to do. I just stared at her, mouth slightly agape, and she motioned again for me to move in front of her. I looked behind me as though someone back there could tell me what I was supposed to do next. She sighed with the full weight of someone who is used to doing nice things for people and not being appreciated for it.
“Sir, you have two items and I have about 50. Please go in front of me.”
The sound of her voice restarted the feeling in my legs and they slowly began moving forward on their own. As I passed by her I mumbled a quick “thank you” that must have sounded like a smooth blend of confusion and shame.
Shame? As I trudged to the car after spending less than three minutes in a mile-long checkout line, I wondered why I felt that at all. Was I ashamed that I beat the system? No. I was ashamed that I did not take more opportunities to do for others what that lady did for me. She likely has no idea that her seemingly random act of kindness would appear in a weekly column the next day. I don’t know who she is or what has shaped her personal moral code, but I do know I have a lot to learn from her. I may never see her again, but I will never forget her.
My mission now is to make sure others benefit from her simple gesture in a grocery store checkout line. She did little more than expedite my afternoon and cure a simple bad mood. Someone else may need a kind word, smile, or simple assist that might make their lives a little easier — or perhaps save it.
The next time I have an opportunity to help someone in even the simplest way, I will remember this scene and pay her act forward. Will you join me in this effort?