Stop signs and spare change

in Opinion by
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A late-night interaction sparks questions about the nature of goodness.

By Katie Saffell

I loaded the back seat of my car with a 16×20 frame for my new Wonder Woman poster, dug 15 seconds longer than reasonable in my tiny purse for my keys, and climbed behind the wheel of my little Subaru to head home. It was around 10 p.m. by the time I was leaving the Walmart parking lot, and I had to be at work at 5:45 the next morning. It was past my bedtime.

I almost heard my mother’s voice when I spotted the haggard man under the stop sign at the exit of the parking lot. I’m not sure what she was saying – probably something about me being a young woman, alone and vulnerable in a vehicle at night, maybe something about not opening windows or even not talking to strangers. Whatever it was she was saying, I ignored my mother’s voice.

I was working as a barista for the summer. Tips made up a large portion of my income, and at any given time I was liable to have at least $25 in one dollar bills on my person. The accessibility made paying for small things – curly fries, new lip gloss, a frame for a Wonder Woman poster – dangerously convenient.

When I pulled up to that stop sign, I knew I had less on me than usual, but I was confident that somewhere near me inside the car was a small wad of cash.

I rolled my window down and reached across the seat for my purse. The man approached my car and I looked him in the eye about the time I realized I was holding up the traffic behind me. The man thanked me and told me that anything helps. He was stranded and needed money for gas. My hand scrambled in my hand-sized bag over my lip balm, an extended family of bobby pins, my other lip balm that melted, a flier for a magazine promotion at Books-A-Million and no cash.

No cash?

I had been positive I had some, maybe just a couple bills. I felt around the passenger seat. The cupholder. Nothing. The headlights in my rearview mirror seemed to grow brighter. I felt my face get hot.

“I must not have any cash. I have no cash,” I said. He paused. I said it again, as if to explain to the both of us. “I have no cash.”

“That’s OK,” he said, and stepped back onto the curb.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“That’s OK.”

“I’ll be praying for you,” I said.

It was the first thing I could think to offer, but I hated myself the second I said the words. I turned on my blinker and left the parking lot. My face still burned at the next stoplight. I looked at my passenger seat again, lit by the intersection’s streetlights. I started to riffle through the random junk on the seat again. I dug the bobby pins out of my purse. Three dollar bills tumbled out. A handful of quarters followed. My face burned hotter.

The light turned green and I passed another stoplight. As I was about to cross the bridge to the interstate on-ramp, I veered off into a hotel parking lot. I stared at the steering wheel.

 

It was, after all, only four-ish dollars. It was past my bedtime. I was, in fact, still a young, vulnerable girl alone in a car.

I pushed down the parking brake and tore out of the parking lot in the direction of Walmart. I pulled into the same driveway, passing the man on my way in. I turned around in some empty spaces and waited my turn for the stop sign. As I rolled my window down, I spotted recognition in the man’s eyes, then a soft confusion. “I found it,” I said, holding my hand out to him. He approached my passenger window but he wouldn’t raise his hat. “It’s not much. I thought I had it, and I did. I just found it at the stoplight.”

He smiled at me. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Thank you,” he said. The quarters clinked into his hand. One dropped onto the seat and I reached for it. “That’s okay. Leave it.” I got the eerie feeling in that moment like I had it backwards, as if he were the one helping me. “You’re a real sweetheart, you know that?”

“Have a good night, sir.”

As I drove away, I tried to wipe the aftertaste of that phrase off my tongue. It tasted like my end-of-transaction spiel to customers. It did not taste like the thing I should have said to the man on the corner. “Take care of yourself,” perhaps, or maybe, “What is your name?”

Why didn’t I ask his name?

My brain’s immediate response to that question clenched in my stomach. “You didn’t care to know.”

“That’s not true,” I thought. “I do care.”

“Then turn around.”

“Well, that seems like overkill, doesn’t it? It is, after all, past my bedtime.”

I convinced myself that I could go back in the morning with my change bag and give him the tips I had saved up over the summer. I’ll spare you the long story: I did not go back the next day. In fact, I never saw the man again.

The encounter, however, remained to tumble around in my head. My emotions that night flitted past the warmth that comes from do-gooderliness and landed squarely into an uneasiness I couldn’t shake. I wondered if my four dollars would make a difference, and if it was worth it to have gone back at all. Then, the worse question: why had I rolled my window down, instead of avoiding eye contact and pulling into traffic?

What was my intention? I didn’t know. It was certainly possible I did it to feel good about myself. Maybe I did it to spite my mother, or at least her voice in my head. Maybe I feared cosmic retribution if I didn’t.

I still think about that man. I still wonder what that means for me. Maybe that’s the selfish part: it’s not about me. I think that in the moment, I did what could technically be described as the “right” thing. I don’t know if what happened was a good thing. Is a good thing still good if done for the wrong reasons? Is good still good if you should have done better?

I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t.

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