160707-kevinHis name was Kevin, in town with an electrical contractor working a car show at the TD Convention Center. His pickup truck’s gas gauge was broken and he’d misjudged, running out of gas on Main Street, leaving his wife to wait for him while he hunted for a station, surprised to find out that his gas-powered pickup had to be primed with diesel. “Do you know anything about priming with diesel?” he asked. No, I didn’t.

Then he’d been told that the red gas can he had with him couldn’t be used to carry diesel from the Chevron – a 15-minute walk – and he didn’t have the thirty-five-dollar refundable deposit necessary to borrow a proper can. An employer-provided tow truck was en route, which he wished the employer hadn’t insisted on sending, because the tow truck driver wasn’t allowed to deal with fuel issues.

“I’ll give you whatever you want to hold onto until I bring the deposit back,” he said. He was reaching for his wallet. He was desperate.

So I went off-script, something I never do, not ever, and offered him five toward the deposit, which he took, but when I started to walk away, he looked crushed. He needed thirty-five, he said. Not five. Thirty-five. A man in the desert asking for the whole canteen, and who could blame him?

Here goes my morning, I thought, and it’s probably going to be a long one, but screw it. A friendly gesture is turning into an entanglement, but screw that, too.

I took back the five and offered him a ride to the Chevron where, I told him, I’d handle the deposit myself and then drive him wherever he needed to go … to the tow truck, to the diesel, to the gas, to the wife, whatever. “God bless you, man. Thank you. God bless you.”

We rode the half block back to Main – that was as far as I’d gotten from my car before running into him – when Kevin said here, this is where he had to wait for the tow truck, so if I could just give him the thirty-five, his wife was right up the road, and …

No, I said. I thought I’d been clear, but maybe not. I’ll handle the deposit, and follow the tow truck to the Chevron if that’s how we’re going to do it, glad to help. I invited him to think of me as his assistant until everything was squared away.

“But I don’t know how long the tow truck will take to get here,” he said.

That’s fine, I told him, don’t worry about that. I’m in no hurry.

“But what I’m saying is, I need thirty-five dollars for the deposit.” We were going in circles.

I told him I understood, I really did, but the offer hadn’t changed. He and his wife could ride in the tow truck if he liked, and I’d be right behind them. No, he said, that would make his wife nervous. I’m sorry, I said. Okay thanks, he said, this is crazy, but never mind. I wished him well and he got out.

Mitzvah, entanglement, misunderstanding, goodbye. I hadn’t been looking forward to running errands for a total stranger, but had I bungled an opportunity? Reluctance + Relief = Guilt

Fifteen minutes later, my car was back in the parking garage and I was at the Underground telling Josh the barista about Pee-wee’s big adventure.

“Tall, skinny guy?” Josh said, grinning wryly. My heart skipped a beat. “If that car isn’t running by now, he’d better get rid of it. He’s been hitting up people around here for weeks.”

Face palm. 

Hook, line and sinker.

New rule: If the person asking for money is clean, intelligent, articulate, apparently healthy, and appropriately embarrassed, walk away. It will seem rude, but walk away. Because he’s a grifter.