Friday, August 19, 2005


I am working a Monday shift, which I despise, as it means that I am working alone with nobody to talk to—for the ninth day in a row. A man, a dark-skinned black man, about 5’9 with a pot-belly from too many Hooters appetizers and too much Corona, walks into the store at about 8 p.m. wearing a shirt that I vaguely recognize as a work shirt. I know that I know this guy from somewhere, some faint memory from a largely forgotten dream.

“Hi, Mike” I say, as my just-sprung-from-jail coworker comes to relieve my endless stretch of work, “welcome back. You owe me your soul for covering your ass. I demanded that Ethel not fire you, that I would cover all of your shifts until you got out.”

“Thank you. And you’re right, I do,” he concedes, adding, “but this wasn’t my fault.”

I am puzzled as to how a man jailed for non-payment of child support can be blameless in this situation, yet curious about his version of the events.

“Do tell,” I instruct.

“I was at the (insert Tennessee county) agency when they told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest for being behind on my payments, when I’ve never missed a child support payment in my life. Next thing I knew, I was being handcuffed and taken to jail. They only hold court there once a month, so I sat there for eight days, before I appeared before a judge. ‘Why is this man here,’ the judge said to the prosecutor, ‘cuz he saw that my failure to pay was a mistake in the paperwork, and then they let me go.”

As Harper Lee once noted, what a man says is often less important than how he says it: there is no stammering in Mike’s delivery or whining in his tone. He is looking at me while he speaks and his eyes are not twitching wildly. I’m an imperfect judge, of course, but better, I think, than most at telling if someone is lying. After all, as anyone is who regularly has underage high school and college students attempt to purchase alcohol and tobacco from him, I am lied to an awful lot. I decide that I believe him, and that my long, overtime pay-laden stretch of work is a blessing compared to Mike’s long, wageless, pointless stretch of time in county. But I’m still very tired and my knees hurt from all the standing and I want badly to go home.

“So you’re going to work the rest of this shift for me, right?”

“Ah, no,” Mike says, “I just came in to help you out for a few hours. Besides, I don’t have my key with me.”

“You can borrow mine,” I testily reply, “and bring it back to me next time I work, or leave it in an envelope in the drawer tomorrow. I really think you should work the rest of my shift.” The tone of my voice has, rather suddenly, looked directly at the Gorgon and turned to stone.

Mike, being a placid, observant man, immediately picks up on the anger and realizes, so I think, that he’s just said “no” to a guy to whom he owes his job, and hence his “successfully executing terms of parole” status. And that’s never, as we know, a wise decision. “Let me make a phone call,” he responds complacently, “and get some things done here, and you can go at nine.” I agree, finding this bargain acceptable.

But I am bothered still by Mike’s initial lack of gratitude, his summary dismissal of my altruism. I covered more than entire, hectic week without him, working 95 hours in nine days so that he could have a job to come back to when he resurfaced from the system, and he had to think twice about letting me go home from work. I am, weirdly, taking this paucity of appreciation as a personal slight, an affront that is scratching at my thought process, inflaming my perspective.

And suddenly I realize that I have already been rewarded for what I have done, that I was never doing anything for Mike at all—that I was wholly and self-interestedly doing something for myself. My logic is polluted and proud: I didn’t work this span so Mike could have a job when he returned; I did it so he would owe me a favor later, for the extra pocket money, for getting to feel benificent and generous and decent, for myriad reasons, all relating to my own reward and gratification. I am no saint nor angel. I did not do this thing for Mike; I did it for me. What I have performed was a thinly-veiled masquerade of self-interest in the guise of charity, the creation of a debt that I will almost certainly collect on later. I am as generous as a loan shark, munificent as a bookie.

I look back over at Mike, now busy draining water from our soda coolers, preparing to add more ice on this hot, humid Summer night. His eyes are roving now, his mind doubtlessly distracted by the implications of missing a week of work, wondering what he is going to do next, preparing to perform damage control on this tiny, hairline fracture of his life. We have two situations: mine, in which I did a lot of work and am a bit tired and cranky, and his, in which he has possibly violated the terms of his parole, lost a week of income, and has just returned to the larger society, lucky and grateful to find himself still employed. Mike has a lot more than I do on his plate right now, and it’s vain and silly of me, I conclude, to expect his immediate attention to be on what he owes me.

But he’s still working the rest of this shift. When he finishes the set of tasks he’s performing, I thank him, hand him my key, and take my leave.

“Welcome back, buddy,” I say again, sincerely, with the anger drained from my voice. I am happy to be out of this place, that has been my own more profitable jail for a little while. But as I clock out and exit, I contemplate the idea of reward, how so often when we think ourselves benevolent we are simply engaging in trade, bartering our efforts in exchange for repayment, all the while indulging in the curious delusion that this makes us something more, something other than—something better—than salesmen. How untrue. I have sold my labor for wages, sold a favor for a debt, sold a little extra sweat in exchange for an illusion of goodness. I am a dealer—nothing more, and nothing less.


At Friday, August 19, 2005 1:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this site, thanks to the link from waiterrant. Most of us have, at some point, worked retail and can relate to your stories. Thanks for a break from the monotony of my job. One thing I noticed though...your use of "aught". As I understand, and have used, aught has a meaning more at "all". I believe you mean ought, as in obligation. I hate to be seen as a nit-picker and really I'm not, I just thought that with your command of the language you may appreciate having it pointed out.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 2:01:00 PM, Anonymous maya said...

aren't we all?

but in the midst of all those self serving reasons wasn't there a small glimmer of genuine concern
for mike
i believe there was and thats why it is called a kindness and deserves gratitude

At Friday, August 19, 2005 2:32:00 PM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

Anon, thank you for the heads up. MS Word only tells me when I've spelled something wrong, because its understanding of syntax is still to primitive to tell me when I'm not making sense.

That's why I have readers, I suppose. Good looking out, as the kids say these days.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 3:28:00 PM, Anonymous Smoove D said...

An interesting perspective. In the end, however, that was a pretty big favor you did Mike.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 4:04:00 PM, Anonymous Ed said...

Put another pebble on your karma scale GM. When the wheel rolls I hope you come back as an investment banker in an alternate universe. Energy will come from attitude. Thank you.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 7:03:00 PM, Blogger Nightcrawler said...

Despite your obvious self-interest in helping Mike keep his job, you did more than you had to and more than most people would have done. Way to go GG, you've proven that humans can and do inconvenience themselves for the sake of others. It's okay to pat yourself on the back.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 7:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's my belief that there has never been a truly altruistic act. We all want something out of our actions, be it a favor later or even the feeling we get from feeling good.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 9:04:00 PM, Anonymous kris said...

I agree with hamel: I don't believe in altruism. When I worked as a volunteer recruiter and manager for nonprofits, I wanted the volunteers to want something for themselves, to be there because of what they were going to get out of the experience (revising the resume, filling lonely time, meeting people to date, whatever). I could count on those people more, and longer, than the ones doing it for the sake of doing good. You know which motivation is going to carry you after the moment of disillusion.

Perhaps the end justifies the means, in do-gooding. (Take that, anonymous speller.) What does it matter why you do it if the good is gettin' done? Huh. Yee haw.

At Friday, August 19, 2005 11:37:00 PM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

Well I dont have bowel cancer ...but...oops.

You did for someone.

Someone will do for you.

I am not an english scholar, but if you are understood, WTF?


At Saturday, August 20, 2005 6:59:00 AM, Blogger bbsgirl said...

Yeah, you did it for yourself yet you know you also did it for mike.

the bowel cancer is blog spam. I had it on my blog a week ago. unfortunately I had to go to settings and fix it so that no annonymous comments could be made.

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 9:23:00 AM, Blogger Twinklestar said...

I agree with Maya - we all find ourselves in situations where we can help someone out and profit from it at the same time.

Its natural, doesn't make you a bad person it just makes you normal.

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 10:46:00 AM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

Jan and Mark, the spam has been deleted, so it will now curiously appear that you are replying to a ghost. I just want to eliminate confusion for any other readers.

Twinklestar, I agree with you completely. There is absolutely nothing wrong about acting in a sort of enlightened self-interest; I would simply add that I think it's important that we recognize that that's what we're doing so that we don't get a big head over it. I guess that was really, more than anything, the point of the post.

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 2:15:00 PM, Anonymous Rachel said...

Thank you for your honesty!

The stuff you spoke of is what i've been noticing about myself lately...

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 3:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the insight

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 4:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to be really benevolent, give Mike the wages you earned working his shifts. That would blow his mind, transform his world, and exorcise the dealer demon you are struggling with.

At least buy the poor guy a Corona.

At Saturday, August 20, 2005 7:48:00 PM, Blogger Tovah said...

At least you are willing to engage in this kind of soul searching and confessing your insights about your motives to the world . Scratch one in your favor for that.
Welcome to the human race....none of us are any better nor worse than you in similar situations, so don't beat yourself up too much.

At Sunday, August 21, 2005 6:22:00 AM, Blogger me said...

Excellent,well put. Such an incredibly important thing to learn about yourself and your own motives -- you're ahead of most of the population just for gaining that insight. (I wish my mother would figure that one out but I'm pretty sure its too late.)

Poor Mike.

At Sunday, August 21, 2005 10:21:00 AM, Blogger annie said...

i think about the whole "he or she owes me" thing, in my own existence as well as others around me. it sure is a challenge to not expect things in return, when we do a so-called "good deed".
and where would politicians and power brokers be without that expectation? sometimes it just feels right to give, and it seems to be something that happens less and less. thanks for your thoughts about it, and more!

At Monday, August 22, 2005 5:40:00 AM, Blogger boiledpnut said...

Just as man is free to attempt to survive by any random means, as a parasite, a moocher or a looter, but not free to succeed at it beyond the range of the moment - so he is free to seek his happiness in any irrational fraud, any whim, any delusion, any mindless escape from reality, but not free to succeed at it beyond the range of the moment nor to escape the consequences.

-- Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics,"
The Virtue Of Selfishness

Wonderful blog.

At Thursday, August 25, 2005 8:36:00 AM, Blogger StrangeLand Bass said...

Just because you get something out of it doesn't take away the generosity of the act. It was still a nice thing to do.
I'd be really amazed to see a 'completely selfless act' - as if such a thing existed. Seems like anytime we do something nice for someone else - even strangers - we get a sense of peace, or knowledge that we have done something nice.
It's only unfortunate that this seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Great blog - great insight - great writing. Thanks for sharing.


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