I Should Have, But I Didn’t

Pay attention to your good fortune. More importantly, share it. Even in the difficulties you experience, you constantly learn that your fortunes are far better than they might have been. This hit home for me yesterday.

I had “teeth work” done yesterday, beginning around 11:30 a.m. Two hours after it began, the first phase (right side, upper and lower) of my dental planing ended, whereupon I received a bill for $612. Later, when the left side is done, I’ll pay another bill for about $612. I’ll get partial reimbursement by my insurance company, eventually, but my share will constitute a significant chunk of money, no matter how you cut it. But I can, for the moment, afford it. I can afford mediocre dental insurance that pays after the fact. I can afford to pay the dentist after completion of each phase of the work.

Later, after a leisurely stroll along a lakeside walking/hiking trail not far from our home, we drove the eight miles or so to a little hamburger joint, The Shack, in Jessieville.  My wife had suggested we go; my mouth was a bit sore and the hygienist  advised me not to have solid food overnight, so a shake might be just what I needed.

When we pulled into the unpaved parking lot, we noticed a tall, thin man talking to some boys in front of the building, near the order window for take-away orders. He was unshaven, sporting several days’ growth of a heavy, dark beard.  His jeans, in tatters with big rips exposing both knees, were filthy, the back and side pockets almost black with the appearance of heavy grease or motor oil.  A long-haired mixed-breed dog, with an orange-brown coat and eyes to match, stood idly by the man.

As we neared the order window, the unkempt man walked past us and across the parking lot, the dog not far behind. The boys, their eyes following the man, paused by the order window, speaking excitedly to the order-taker before they walked away. I overheard one of them say, “he’s scary crazy!”

My wife and I each ordered a cherry shake. As we ordered, I glanced back across the parking lot to the main road. Off to the side was a special services shuttle van, the kind dedicated to helping the physically and mentally handicapped with transportation. The unkempt man stepped away from the van and trudged back across the parking lot to the concrete pad where my wife and I waited for our shakes. I nodded a greeting to him as he walked past me; he acknowledged by nodding to me as he walked by.

As he passed me, I noticed his army green shirt with what looked like a stripe indicating rank on one sleeve. Like the jeans, his partially unbuttoned shirt was in tatters and smeared with heavy dirt.  The dog, too, had a dust-coated greasy smear along its right cheek.

The man spoke aloud to no one, muttering a few words I could understand; most I could not. He sat off to the side, on a hard wooden bench, mumbling and cocking his head quizzically. The dog sat by his side, occasionally looking my way with a look in its eyes that said to me, “I’m hungry, do you have food for me?”

The door to the diner opened and a family, a mother and two sons and a daughter, exited. The younger son looked at the dog with fear and demanded “What’s that dog’s name?!” followed by, “I hate that dog!”

The mother said “Hush! That dog’s done nothing to cause you to say that!”

The man said, “That’s Shotgun Bill’s dog.”

The mother responded with, “Sorry, we’re not from around here.”

“I know. I’d a seen you.”

Without staring, I glanced repeatedly at the man and got the sense that he was saying the same thing his dog said about being hungry, but without looking in my direction.

While this was going on, I felt the discomfort I too often feel around people who are mentally challenged. I’m ashamed to admit a mix of fear and an awkwardness at not knowing how to behave, how to respond, even to their presence.

When our order was ready, I went to window to pay for one medium and one large shake. “That’ll be five dollars and twenty-one cents.”  I gave her a five and a one and told her to keep the change.

We sat in the grey, weathered chairs in front of the building, sucking our shakes through straws, while the man and the dog paced, then sat, then paced some more. It was apparent they weren’t waiting for their food order.

When I finished my shake, my wife suggested we head home.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw the man and the dog still in the same spot.

Half a mile up the road, I said to my wife, “I feel for the guy; evidently he has a mental disorder.  And did you see his clothes?  They were in shreds and absolutely filthy. Poor guy.”

“Yeah, and he’s probably homeless,” my wife replied.

Just hours earlier, I paid half of the more than $1200 required for dental work, then I went out to enjoy the day. And then, a few minutes before, I ordered two shakes for $6.

Yeah, I popped in to a local diner/dive where I watched an obviously indigent and needy guy suffering from mental illness.  I should have turned the car around, once it hit me like a baseball bat to the stomach, and bought him a hamburger.  I should have offered the guy a twenty-dollar bill toward food while I was still sitting there sucking on my cherry shake. What stopped me?  Nothing.  I just didn’t do it.  I should have. But I didn’t.

I hope next time I do.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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