Charles City Press, 10-25-18
When you live among the humans, sometimes the easy things are hard.
When I walked out of my favorite local convenience store at lunch today, I nearly collided with a man in a really cool-looking Northern Iowa Panther sweatshirt. He was coming in, I was walking out, and neither of us was paying close attention. We managed to miss each other, we both said “excuse me” and went on our way.
It was a non-incident, but I remembered it because of the brilliant purple and gold sweatshirt that said “Panther Marching Band” on it. I thought that maybe if I had gone to school in Cedar Falls at UNI, I would like to wear a cool sweatshirt like that. Maybe I should get one anyway.
I was in a good mood because I had just had a pleasant and funny conversation with the lady at the checkout counter as I paid her for my hot sandwich and chips. The conversation was about nothing memorable, but we each made the other laugh, and those are nice moments.
As I got back out to my car, I noticed a car parked near mine that had its gas lid wide open, its gas cap dangling. I noticed the car was still running, but no one was inside.
What to do? I felt like I just couldn’t leave that gas cap dangling like that. I don’t know enough about cars to know all the possible consequences of leaving your gas open. Maybe it allows water and dirt and junk into the gas tank and can ruin your engine or something. In the very least, you look like a dunderhead as you’re driving all over town with your gas lid wide open and the gas cap dangling freely.
In the past, I’ve just walked up and screwed on the gas cap on and closed the lid for whoever the absent-minded stranger was. But I didn’t want someone to see me do that and think I was taking some kind of liberties with a car that wasn’t mine. Maybe my best bet would be to go back into the store and find out who owned the car, and kindly tell him or her about the gas cap situation.
I checked the make and model. Equinox. And then I noticed the stickers on the car. “UNI Panthers.”
Aha! That’s it! UNI Panther Marching Band. The guy with the cool sweatshirt. He’ll be easy to find.
If only that would have been true.
I tossed my hot sandwich and chips into my car, went back inside and checked all four corners of the store, but no Panther Shirt Man. I figured he must be using the bathroom. I considered going in there, then considered the awkwardness and embarrassment of having a conversation with a stranger while he does his business. Most unpleasant. I decided to wait for him to come out, I was in no hurry. So I waited.
He seemed to have been in there an awful long time now, and for a lot of reasons, that reinforced my belief that my decision to not go in there was the right one.
“Can I help you find something, sir?” a young woman, an employee of the store, asked me.
Yes. I explained everything to her — the car and the gas cap and the missing Man in the Purple Panther Sweatshirt.
She seemed to understand and looked around for a few seconds.
“I don’t see him,” she said. “He must have already left.”
I must not have explained it as well as I thought I had.
“No, he hasn’t left. I saw him walk in, and he hasn’t walked out, and his car is still sitting out there in the parking lot, waiting for him.”
I offered as evidence the Equinox, 15 feet from where we were standing, on the other side of the big store window, smoke coming from the exhaust because it was still running, the gas lid clearly wide open.
“Are you sure he hasn’t left?” she asked me, still skeptical that the preponderance of evidence I had just presented to her had eliminated all reasonable doubt.
Of course I was sure.
“Well then, if he hasn’t left, he could be in the men’s room.”
She got it. I told her that was exactly what I thought. He’d been in there an awful long time. He’ll come out soon, and I will talk to him.
“You can’t expect me to go into the men’s room,” she said, her voice raising. “I can’t go into the men’s room.”
I didn’t know where that came from.
“Don’t be so defensive,” I said to her, probably too loudly. “I don’t expect you to go into the men’s room. I don’t expect you to do anything. I’m just trying to help this guy out and let him know about his gas cap.”
And then, to my heartbreaking astonishment, the young woman began to cry. Seriously. I am not making this up. She dashed off to a back corner of the establishment, weeping. This whole thing was weird now.
And there I stood, speechless, possibly the biggest jerk in the entire history of the world. With a not-very-hot sandwich and chips in my car.
I walked over to the checkout clerk, hoping to find an ally. Surely she would recall the joy and laughter of that wonderful conversation which we had shared six or seven minutes ago, believe that there is still good in me, and somehow magically fix it so that none of this was real.
Or maybe, at least, she could wait for Purple Panther Sweatshirt Man to come out of the bathroom — maybe sometime this week — and tell him, on my behalf, that his stupid gas cap was off and the cover was dangling. I explained the situation to her.
“And now, I made that poor girl back there cry, and I feel bad, because I didn’t mean to do that,” I said to her, in conclusion. “I’m very sorry.”
“Oh no. She’s not crying about you. It’s something else entirely,” she assured me. She seemed sincere, but I didn’t believe her.
“Are you sure? I can apologize to her.”
Absolutely not necessary, she told me.
So I left the store, vowing under my breath to never ever ever again decide to try to help anyone, unless it was a life-or-death kind of thing.
As I walked to my car, I realized that there was now someone in the driver’s side of the Equinox, not Panther Man, but a woman chatting on the phone. I saw that the gas cap was still off. I figured it must be Panther Man’s wife, back in the car waiting for him. He was still in the bathroom, perhaps signing a lease to move in, writing checks for a security deposit and the first month’s rent.
I stood near the car and waved at her to get her attention. She looked up at me as if she were a sorority girl from Haddonfield, I was Michael Myers holding a machete, and today was Halloween.
I had scared the heck out of her.
I smiled and opened my hands and arms to put her at ease, then motioned for her to roll down the window so I could tell her something. She wouldn’t. She wasn’t scared anymore, but she wasn’t going to roll down her window for me.
So I nodded and began to talk very loudly and slowly, so she could hear.
“Your gas cap is off,” I said, pointing at the side of her car. “You might want to put it back on.”
Now she was visibly annoyed. Who was this silly old man, and why did he care about my gas cap? My gas cap is none of his business.
She gave me a very sarcastic “OK” sign with her fingers, then dismissed me, waving me off.
“Go away, silly man,” she seemed to be saying. “I am talking on the phone and it’s much more important than your little fake emergency.”
This is why good people stop trying to help others, I thought to myself, munching on my cold sandwich and chips as I drove off.
Sometimes the others just aren’t worth the trouble.
Sometimes they are though, I thought. Maybe not today, but sometimes they certainly are.
I decided that if had to do it all over again, I would do it the same way, except I’d be really careful and try not to make that young woman cry.
Sometimes the easy things are hard, when you live among the humans.
I went home, finished my lunch, and spent a half-hour online shopping for Northern Iowa Panther apparel.
It really was a cool looking sweatshirt.