As an independent graphic designer, I often go for a jog in the middle of the day to break up the monotony of working alone. On this particular day, I decided instead to go to Walmart to buy a dust buster. But buying a dust buster at Walmart is not as simple as a jog in the park. By the time I found the aisle of vacuum cleaners, made my choice, added a few more items to my cart and got in line to pay, I wanted to be done with the errand and back at work. Needless to say, the line was long. Usually I consider it an invasion of privacy to examine the contents of other people’s shopping carts, but as the wait dragged on, I couldn’t help but notice all the junk food in the cart in front of me. This added to my irritation.
When my turn arrived, the cashier looked down and complained about something sticky on the floor. She literally started turning in circles while lifting her feet up and down, voicing her displeasure about a spill of some sort. After her third circle (I’m not making this up), I asked if she could tell me how much the dust buster cost. She abruptly focused, rushed my items through the scanner and announced, “$43.”
“What!?” I said, “I don’t want the dust buster for that much,” to which she curtly pointed to the Returns Counter. And there I was, standing in another long line.
Eventually, I was told that $19 was put back on my credit card.
“What!?” I asked again, “I thought the dust buster was $43!” “No,” the return lady said, “Your entire purchase was $43, but the dust buster was only $19.”
After buying the dust buster a second time, I exited the store, muttering to myself, “I will never shop at Walmart again!” This is immature, I know. Making silly promises to myself would never bring back the time I lost over a flimsy appliance. Still I muttered as I started my car.
All of a sudden, when I tried to back out of my parking space, a steady stream of drivers started coming in. It was truly bizarre, this flow of humanity into the Walmart parking lot. I inched out, then pulled back in four times. Finally, the way was clear. I made my move. Only, it wasn’t really clear. The incoming car stopped just after passing behind me. When I backed out, I nicked its rear fender.
The driver, an older gray-haired man, immediately jumped out, inspected the damage, put his hands to the sky and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Oh my God, look what has happened to my beautiful car!” He shouted those exact words again. He was so thoroughly dramatic, that my bad mood gave way to a chuckle. Sure, I was unhappy with the fender-bender, but this was really comical. Besides, it was time to stop bemoaning the dust buster saga and see what was needed now.
Standing by the distraught man, I assured him my insurance company would take care of everything. He would hear none of it. He said this had happened to him before with a bad outcome. He called the police. We exchanged information. He handed me his license, took it back, dropped it in his car somewhere, then accused me of stealing it. Two policemen arrived, only to explain that they don’t make reports on fender benders in parking lots.
All the while, I was sincerely trying to calm the man. Finally, he faced me, looked me in the eyes and blurted out what was really going on. “I have cancer!” he said. “I’m dying of cancer, but my wife needs me! I need to stay alive for my wife!”
“Oh!” I said. Without a second thought, I reached up my arms to hug him, and he quickly reciprocated with a release of tears. There we were, in the Walmart parking lot, hugging each other and crying. I told him I’d pray for him. He thanked me and told me more about his dear wife and how he feared for her. When he got in his car to leave, it occurred to me that he hadn’t done his shopping.
“Wait!” I said, “Weren’t you coming here to buy something? What was it? Let me buy it for you.”
“No, no,” he said, “that’s okay.”
“Please!” I begged,” It’s the least I can do.”
Ironically, after his previous mistrust, he was now trying to stuff a wad of bills into my hand, although I insisted on buying it for him. More ironically, after swearing to never shop at Walmart again, I was in the store so soon, buying a huge tub of cat food for a stranger. But he wasn’t a stranger anymore.
When I got back to my office, it was late afternoon, but I didn’t care. Within minutes my insurance company called, confirmed my identity, then said, “Firstly, the driver told us to thank you for the cat food. He really appreciated that.”
I smiled. It’s amazing how much I messed up, from my impatience to the fender bender, and yet, something decent came out of it. It’s been six months since the incident. I occasionally pray for the man and still marvel at how a community of kindness can be built in the most unexpected places.