One Sunday afternoon a number of years ago I was approached outside my house by a down-on-his-luck character who told me he was trying to buy a used car over on Pillsbury Avenue and had found himself fifty bucks short. He'd taken the bus from St. Paul to look at this car, he explained. He'd just gotten a job in Maplewood and was starting on Monday. He was clearly desperate, and seemed almost frantic. If he didn't get this car, he said, he would have no way to "drive backwards and forwards to work."
Backwards and forwards. That, I thought, felt like the way I usually come and go from work every day.
I'll admit, though, that I was a bit skeptical, so I offered to walk over with him to check out the car, figuring this character would balk and that would be the end of that. He didn't balk, however; if anything he responded with almost alarming enthusiasm to this offer, and we walked the several blocks to Pillsbury without much in the way of conversation passing between us.
And sure enough, there it was, some kind of white, four-door family car in the garage of a townhouse.
I found myself trying to negotiate with the car's owner. Couldn't he, I asked, do any better than $800? The man was emphatic. He had already agreed to shave the price down from $1000 to $800. He'd just listed the car on Wednesday, he said, and he was confident he would eventually find someone willing to pay his original asking price.
The potential buyer and I walked down to the end of the driveway and talked things over. Did I think it was a good deal? he asked.
I told him that he was unfortunately asking the wrong guy. It looked like a decent car, I said. He pulled a wad of rumpled cash from his pocket and counted it out. He was, in fact, $48 short.
I gave the guy his fifty dollars so that he would have a car to drive backwards and forwards to work. "Long may she run," I told him as I handed over the cash.
I left the two guys to complete the transaction, but as I walked away down the sidewalk the buyer scurried after me and asked for my name and address. I wrote this information for him on an index card and handed it over.
A week or so later I came home to find an envelope in my mailbox. The envelope contained two twenties, and twelve ones.
Last night I stopped into a SuperAmerica and as I was leaving I heard a voice behind me say, “How that’s Honda treating you?” When I turned to see the source of the voice, there was the backwards and forwards guy, putting gas in that same 1997 white Chevy Lumina that he’d bought the afternoon of our encounter. I didn’t recognize him, but he introduced himself and we made small talk for a couple minutes. He had a new job in Bloomington, he told me, driving a forklift. The Lumina had turned out to be a steal. I asked him something that I had been curious about for a long time: Why had he given me fifty-two dollars?
“I think that’s what you call interest,” he said, and laughed. “You gave me two dollars more than I needed, so I gave you two dollars more than you gave me.”
We said our goodbyes, and as I walked to my car I noticed the “Mitt Romney: Believe in America” sticker on his back bumper.