Michael Collins: Fond nostalgia leads to harsh dose of reality

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 10:32 AM

The world can be an indifferent place, and I can attest that it does not filter its harshness based on race, gender, religion or creed. When it chooses to beat someone up, all creatures are subject to its authority, and it will mercilessly kick you when you’re down.

Like most people, I frequently am convinced that I have been targeted by the world more than my fair share. Someday I might finally heal enough to relate the trauma of how my prized Members Only jacket was ruined by pigeon poop simply by being lovingly worn inside Northview Elementary. For now, though, I am reflecting on another moment.

I was in my late 20s and attending UT after a long hiatus during which my family circled the wagons after my Pop’s passing. I was naïve, emotional and, frankly, quite gullible.

On my way back from class, I pulled into a Taco Bell to grab dinner. As I approached the restaurant, a man stopped me and asked if I could give him some cash. He had an excellent back story. In fact, today’s phone-tapping NSA could not have crafted a better back story to use on me at that precise moment.

He was a traveling salesman, had lost his wallet and was without money for food or gas. If I would just be so kind as to loan him a little money to eat, he would be happy to mail it back to me when he made his way home to his family.

I scrutinized the man closely. He was certainly dressed the part, looking entirely unlike the professional panhandlers I was more accustomed to around certain parts.

His appearance gave me a flashback: Pop had been a traveling salesman for years. I spent many a summer on the road with him, sitting in the car while he worked his way from business to business selling his wares. It didn’t matter what the product or the company, Pop was always the top salesman. “It’s because I believe in what I am selling,” he would always lecture me, “If I don’t believe in it, I won’t sell it!” True to that commitment, he would move on from one company to another if his faith in their product dwindled.

While I waited in Pop’s car each summer, without an electronic device to be had, I lived the adventures of hundreds of books. Later, I would be rewarded for my patience with an early afternoon of swimming at the hotel pool, followed by watching Tuesday Night Fights on cable while dining on single slices of white bread smeared with braunschweiger and chased by a cherry Big K Cola.

It was The Life for a kid like me, and those summers hold some of my fondest memories. We knew every road and small town from Chattanooga to Asheville, and you couldn’t drive 10 miles on any route in between without passing by somewhere that Pop had sold something.

As I regained my focus, I looked at this man and saw my Pop standing there in need. How could I resist? Still, some wisdom in me sparked, and I told him to let me think about it. I walked into the restaurant and thought to myself I should just buy him a meal: Just buy him a meal, Michael.

But I couldn’t do that. My Pop would have wanted to be spared the indignity of having a bag of food handed to him in front of the Taco Bell no matter how dire the circumstances. I came back out and discreetly gave him a $10 bill, hoping it would feed him and give him a few bucks for gas. I told him not to worry about mailing anything and walked to my car feeling quite philanthropic.

As I sat down in my car, I could see him standing there staring with anticipation, but not at the restaurant where I assumed he would satisfy his hunger. I followed his gaze to an approaching car filled with … a single woman, penetrating my car with the evil-eye as she squealed in beside him. The recipient of my goodwill jumped — and I do mean jumped, not “briskly climbed in” or “entered with haste” – he absolutely jumped into the car as if he just robbed a bank, and the evil-eyed lady tore off like a banshee.

I exhaled and wondered why he couldn’t at least do me the dignity of walking into the restaurant and pretending to buy food until I was gone. Why did he have to put an exclamation point on it? The betrayed memories of Pop pulled a 180 and emerged as pure outrage. I had allowed someone unworthy to fill his shoes, if only for the briefest of moments.

With my sudden burst of grief-tinged adrenaline, I made no small work of getting out of that parking lot and on their tail. I was in a hot pursuit worthy of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. It was just me and my car versus him and his ... and his driver, the Richard-Petty wannabe, evil-eyed, banshee lady.

Unfortunately, like the good sheriff, I would not bag my quarry that day. The banshee lady darted skillfully in and out of traffic and sped away, while I came to both my senses and a gentle stop at a red light she had pushed through.

As I sat there, I watched them ride off into the sunset and wondered how $10 could be worth so much effort. I hope I will never know.