The note was taped to the mirror in the rest area near the Nevada border.
"Please help me," it read. "I am trying to get home to my wife and daughter in Reno, but I am out of gasoline and have no money. If you can help me, I am sleeping in the gray Ford. God bless you."The car was easy to spot - a large, dilapidated steel beast with the windows wide open, hoping to catch a breeze that didn't exist. A big gray German shepherd was sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the car, sleeping in a tiny patch of shade created by an awning pole. Car and animal looked spent, like their reserves of energy were depleted.
As I walked toward the car, I realized that I'm a lot more cynical than I used to be. I still thought, "That poor guy." But the thought "Not a bad way to make money" also crossed my mind.
I didn't like it.
It turned out the man was not asking for money. He wanted exactly what his note said: gasoline. I watched as a man patiently poured a couple of gallons from the can strapped to the back of his car into the stranded traveler's tank.
A woman who was stopped with her three small children dug into a cooler and poured some ice chips into a bowl for the dog, who licked industriously at the cold liquid.
An elderly man traveling with his wife in a car almost as old and worn-out as the stranded man's gave him a couple of dollars.
As we walked back to our cars, I asked the elderly man if he ever worried about being "taken."
"Nope," he said. "I just bought myself a good feeling. Cheap. If he's taking advantage of me, that's his problem, not mine."
Days later, back in the office and still bothered by my own duality of thought, I was telling a colleague about the man and the dog and the gas-starved car.
She had a story of her own.
Not long ago, she and her husband were coming out of the Delta Center with their children when she saw a couple pulling a wagon, piled high with miscellaneous household items. They were looking for help.
"I am so ashamed to say this," my friend told me. "I did my very best not to see them. If I didn't see them, I wouldn't have to respond."
They got to their car without acknowledging the strange couple. And as they got ready to drive home, my friend started to cry. She couldn't believe she did that. She was raised to care about other people. She tries to teach her children to reach out and help others.
"We must have driven around 15 minutes before we found them," she said.
Her husband got out and talked to the couple. It turned out they were missionaries who had given up everything to come to America. They needed help. My friend and her husband gave them what money they had with them.
She cried all the way home. Not because these people had a bad life. Not because she was afraid she'd been "taken." She cried because she saw herself differently. When she tried not to see people in trouble, she was forced to see herself, instead, in a most unflattering way.
I know the feeling.
I've written about panhandlers before. I've encouraged people to give to organizations that provide services, rather than on the street, if they're worried about someone taking advantage of them. I still believe if someone carries a sign that promises he'll work for food or money, then refuses to do any work, no one is under an obligation to give him anything. Fair's fair.
But I have met so many people who are in genuine need that to assume someone's just "making an easy buck" with a plea for help is sheer idiocy on my part. I think I owe it to myself to find out.
I could offer that bowl of ice chips. The gallon of gas. The few small bills or coins pressed into a grateful hand. And if I was taken, I'd be out a bowl of ice chips. A gallon of gas. A few small bills or coins. Big deal.
What I can't afford to be out of is the feeling I am part of a giving, caring world. I need that.
Like the man said, it's a good feeling. Cheap.