My shift at the fuel center where I was working was ending soon, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was so ready to get out of there!
A customer walked up to the window of the kiosk. I stood on the other side of the bulletproof glass, ready to help him.
How can I help you today? I asked through the intercom system.
His reply was garbled, but I did understand him to say twenty dollars. He opened the glass over the drawer and put something inside.
What pump are you on, sir? I asked.
He replied, Twenty dollars! The look on his face and the tone of his voice told me he was already agitated.
Yes, sir, I said. And what pump are you on?
I heard him open the Plexiglass over the drawer roughly and grab whatever he’d put in earlier. The whole drawer rattled. He held up his $20 bill to the window and shook it while yelling twenty dollars! His whole face contorted. He looked like a madman. He was obviously really angry.
I leaned down and put my mouth right next to the intercom. I spoke slowly and (I hoped) clearly.
Yes, sir, but I need to know what pump you’re on.
Oh, sorry, he said as his face relaxed. He looked like a totally different person. He put the money back in the drawer and said in a normal tone of voice, Pump 10.
I took his $20 bill from the drawer and sent him on his way to get his fuel from pump 10.
I was walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot in a small
mountain town. I heard someone say Ma’am?
so I looked over. At first I thought the person talking to me was a young man.
Based on appearance—shaved head, flat chest, shapeless athletic-style
garments—I guessed the person was male. However, when the person spoke, there
was a softness to the voice I didn’t expect. Was the person transgender? A
butch lesbian? Neither the person’s gender no sexual orientation really
mattered, but still, I was curious.
I’d seen the person earlier when I’d pulled into a parking
space. The Man and I had sat in our vehicle for a few minutes discussing what
we needed to buy in the store. In the parking row ahead of us, I’d seen this
person emerge from the passenger side of a small, beat up car. They were
carrying a purple case, the kind a child might use to transport a few sheets of
paper and a handful of crayons. I’d wondered what was in the case. Now I’d have
my chance to find out.
Ma’am? the person asked again. I stopped walking, and the person went on with their story. They were a miner and a jewelry maker. They lived in an even smaller town down the road, and their car was having problems. They were trying to sell some of the jewelry they’d made so they could pay for repairs on the car. Their higher end jewelry was for sale on Etsy, but that money could take a while to come through.
All of the preceding information was conveyed in a
rapid-fire, highly enthusiastic manner.
I said I would take a look at what they were selling. They
opened the case and started pointing to stones and rings and pendants. They had
mined the stones and turned them into jewelry, they said. They were pointing
out stones, telling me they names of the stones and where they had found them.
They were talking very fast.
I hate to dis an artist, but I have to say, neither the
jewelry nor the stones were impressive. The design and workmanship of the
jewelry screamed absolute beginner without much talent. The stones were not cut
well and barely showed a polish. Although I didn’t think the work was very
good, I did want to help this person. They obviously needed money if they were
hawking jewelry in Wal-Mart parking lot.
I should have just handed over five bucks and been done with it, but I like to encourage artists too. We were all beginners once. People bought my hemp jewelry when it wasn’t very good. I could do the same for another beginner.
A ring in the case caught my eye. I picked it up and the
jewelry maker said they’d mined the stone. They told me where they’d found it.
I tried on the ring and it fit. I’m a sucker for a ring that fits, so I asked
the price. They said it was $20.
I should have handed over five bucks and left the ring, but
I wanted to help. I wanted to encourage. I pulled a $20 bill from my wallet and
handed it over. I had a new ring.
I introduced myself by way of parting. They told me the name they used when selling jewelry, then went on to give me their full, legal (feminine) name in order to explain their nickname. I asked if they had a card, but they didn’t. I gave them my card, although I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea at the time.
I really wanted to part ways now. The Man was waiting in the truck and was probably ready to head home.
I took a step away, and the person took a step toward me.
They started telling me about spending the winter in Quartzsite.
My partner ripped me off,
they said. (I don’t know if they meant a business partner or a romantic
I had a small problem
with a warrant in New Mexico. When I got picked up, my partner took everything!
Here they named a huge dollar amount of supposedly stolen inventory and ended
with saying the partner even stole my dog!
Whether this was true or not, I don’t know. However, I do know that if one wants to generate sympathy, one might tell a story in which a partner does one wrong by stealing not only a huge amount of merchandise, but one’s beloved pet as well.
It was all TMI to me. I just wanted to get out of there.
Ok! See you later!
I said brightly when there was the slightest pause in the monologue. I took
off, found the truck where The Man was waiting, and got in.
Look at my new ring,
I told The Man as I handed it over for his inspection. He looked at it more
closely than I had.
I think it’s made of
barbed wire, he said, handing it back to me. I examined it. I thought he
was right. Great. I’d paid $20 for a ring that was likely to give me tetanus.
I told The Man about the encounter that had led me to buy the ring. I think that person was on meth, I said as I wrapped up the story. This idea hadn’t occurred to me while I was talking to them, but now it seemed perfectly clear. Trying to sell trinkets in a parking lot was the first potential sign. The pride in the poorly crafted goods was a red flag I had ignored. The rapid speech and over-excitement should have both been tip-offs. The oversharing was another sign. If the sad stories (broke down car, lowdown partner, theft of merchandise and dog) didn’t give it away, certainly the slightly sweaty look of their face even though it was a cool evening should have.
I didn’t realize it then, but I realized it now: I’d been
You helped them get
whatever they needed tonight, The Man comforted me.
I hoped they’d use the $20 I forked over to really turn
their life around…but I knew $20 wasn’t enough to turn any life around. Twenty
dollars is really so little.
In the end, I faced the fact that it wasn’t my job to save
that person, and it wasn’t that person’s job to be saved. I remembered how when
Mr. Carolina gave money to someone flying a sign or panhandling in a parking
lot, he didn’t care what the person used the money for. He gave the money to
help the person get whatever they needed in the moment, be it food, beer, or
crack. It’s not our place to judge, Mr. Carolina taught me, and it’s not our
place to tell other people what they do or don’t need. People make their own
decisions, and when it comes down to it, we can help each other, but each of us
has to decide to save ourselves (or not).
All that said, I hope I was wrong about the person I met in the parking lot of that small-town Wal-Mart that cool spring night. I hope there’s no meth habit holding them down. I hope their skills grow, and they can one day make the jewelry as they currently envision it. I hope their car gets fixed. I hope they find a trust-worthy partner and a new dog to love. I hope they soar.