Building Bridges #7
“You are sent as sheep among wolves. Be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
It was summer 1984 in the middle of a long recession, I was young, idealistic, and convinced of the basic goodness of all those around me. I often would stop to help change flat tires, pick up hitch-hikers, give food & water to the hungry. I worked as a night clerk at a 24-hour convenience store on third shift while in college. Yes, we had a few food fights, and long talks about girlfriends, life, cars, sports, customers, dogs, food, music, history, philosophy, religion, local police patrols, roommates, and what we wanted to do when we were no longer working at a convenience store while struggling through college. All done a decade before the movie ‘Clerks’ was ever thought of.
My co-worker, an avid golfer, kept his clubs in the trunk of his super-clean stock 1967 Ford Fairlane. It totally outclassed my shiny, red Chevette. Often, during occasional bouts of boredom, he would get a driver out, spin around with his eyes closed, pointing with his club. Stopping at random, he would tee up in front of the store, then drive the ball in the dark, in the middle of the night, in the direction of his random pointing. Sometimes, we never heard where it hit or landed. Sometimes, we did, and ran inside. Sometimes, the Kroger’s workers diagonally across the street would scatter in alarm at the sudden arrival of a golf ball in their midst. Were we showing discretion? Obviously not. However, our customers showed just as much a lack of discretion.
Often, teenagers, their parents, local swing shift workers, cops, drug dealers, pimps, hookers, college students, drunks, and homeless people would wander in for bread, milk, lunch meat, toilet paper, coffee, conversation, more beer, rolling papers, cigarettes, panty hose, ice, sandwiches, conversation, or just warmth. Some wouldn’t have enough money for even a sandwich or coffee. Both my co-worker and I would chip in from our own meager pockets to make sure no one went hungry or without coffee. We were often surprised what people were searching for.
One dealer, satisfied with a good night at the university up the street, left a baggie of pot on the counter as a tip, ‘On the house’, he said as he walked out after paying for some beer. It was immediately flushed down the toilet by myself, much to the chagrin of my co-worker. Were they showing discretion when they were falling over displays, changing clothes, spilling coffee & beer on themselves while drinking it before even getting up to the counter? Were they showing discretion when they held us up at knife-point or gunpoint for drug money? Obviously not. However, neither did some of our other co-workers.
One co-worker, even after being warned about not using a metal holder for meat on the deli slicer, still held the meat in place with his hand. While he was laughing & joking with us, I and a customer, watched in horror as he sliced the end of his thumb off with the meat, neatly stacked beneath the slicer. The EMT’s later retrieved the end of his thumb on ice, but were unable to re-attach it. Another co-worker went home one evening with roast beef in her hair. It was still there when she returned in the morning. Were they showing discretion? Obviously not.
Despite the eye-popping experiences of working there, I still felt compelled to help people: giving rides, sharing food, fixing flats & radiator hoses on the side of the road, until one day, many years later. Working on a payroll system database snafu in the middle of the night with a co-worker, I left to get pizzas. In addition to working at the same university up the street from the old convenience store, I had also just completed certification as a volunteer Red Cross Disaster Services Coordinator with several thousand volunteer hours under my belt on local & national disasters.
On the way back to work that night, I witnessed an automobile accident and stopped to help. As prepared as I thought I was for any disaster, I ended up quickly being carjacked by the driver, (a parole violator I later discovered), in his haste to escape. I memorized the route we took, turn by turn, thinking it would be my last trip, ever, especially given the carjacker’s warning. Imagine my relief when I was finally instructed to pull over next to a house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and the carjacker jumped out.
We are here to take care of each other. If we don’t, who will? Personally, I still think it’s worth the risk to continue reaching out, but not in the indiscriminate, naive way of my youth. Never give cash, but help in kind: call AAA, towtrucks, police, medical assistance, food, water, grocery store/McDonald’s gift cards, socks, granola bars, toothpaste, toothbrushes, water bottles, directions to shelters, phone numbers for churches, food pantries, agencies that can provide assistance. Remember the Samaritan: pay it forward, or better yet: pay it ahead for someone else. We still listen, care, help people make connections for urgent needs. Be alert, aware of your surroundings, and humble. If you aren’t genuine or sincere, most people can tell – so, don’t waste their’s, your’s, or anyone’s time in making yourself feel better. If you don’t genuinely care what is happening to those around you, better get alone, think, ask yourself, meditate, and find out why. Above all, have the presence of mind to know when to help. This can be accomplished through meditation, prayer and simple observation.
We are charged to be aware of evil and those who would do evil to us. We aren’t charged to be afraid of each other. Even when others mean it for evil, the universe sometimes still intends it for good. As much as we desire to believe the best of others around us, not everyone we encounter shares our same desire. I am older, a little more experienced, hopefully a little wiser, and after some soul-searching many years ago, still helping others. Don’t let fear or the meanness of our current economic or political climate or fear prevent us from reaching out to others. At some point we have to live it, not just talk about it. Let’s be careful out there.