Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Being a good guy

Last week, my wife dropped me off at the shop where my car was waiting for me. I had already paid for it earlier and had the keys, so I just hopped in and got ready to leave. The mechanic who took care of me ran out, and knocked on my window. Apparently a guy in an RV broke my tail light backing up to leave. He left a complete note with his name, address, and two phone numbers. The damage was very slight. There was a deep scratch in the bumper, and outer plastic of the tail light was broken with no body damage. Perfect broken tail light.

I called him that weekend, and he asked that I get an estimate so he can figure if he's going to have his insurance take care of it, or just pay out of pocket. I said it was no problem, and that I would get some estimates. I was a little concerned about damage I couldn't see, and looked up shops that could get me an estimate. It wasn't until I started considering how much time it was going to take to get fixed that it even occurred to me to change it myself.

I checked eBay, and found I could get a replacement tail light assembly for $70, so I went out to the car, and spent about 30 minutes taking apart all the trunk paneling I could to get to the poorly located nuts that held the tail light in place. I could swap this out easily, and the scratch on the bumper was cosmetic. My car was far from brand new, and scars show character.

I considered asking for $300 to cover the damage, and just replacing the light myself. If I involved his insurance, his rate would very likely go up enough to make a one time $300 expense make sense. He'd be fine with it, and I'd have a little extra money in my pocket during these no OT times. It was the capitalist thing to do. Both people would be happy with the transaction. But one would probably be happier.

The more I thought about it, the harder it was to rationalize. Especially when it would have been easy for him to just drive away. Maybe $200 would be better? I didn't really feel good about profiting from this guy's mistake, but my time was still valuable. Bah, I'll just chalk it up to experience working on the car. $70 for the light, $30 for my labor. An even $100.

I called him up and told him I took apart my trunk to get behind the light, and saw I could replace it myself, and that I found a replacement light on ebay for $70.
John: So how much do you want?
ET: Figure 30 for my time. An even 100.
J: You sure?
E: Sure. [jokingly] But I am kind of giving your a break on my normal hourly rate though.
J: How about $150?
E: If that's what you want to pay, I'll take it.
We set up a meeting at the Starbucks I code at in the mornings.

The next morning he called to say he had arrived, and I told him where to find me. He was a little younger than I figured for RV folk, late 40s early 50s, pattern baldness around a well tanned head, short salt and pepper hair and beard. I half-closed my laptop, and stood slightly to shake his hand.

John: Nice to meet you.
ET: Nice to meet you too.
J: Thanks for being a good guy about this... [he seemed to think, "lord knows this could have gone the other way"]
E: No problem.
J: Well, here's the $150... [counts out $130] Wait a minute... I seem to have lost $20 on the way here. Hang on. [begins toward the door]
E: [I make a quick visual recount] Wait, John, you don't... [he was out the door]
[Is this a game? No. He counted it out in front of me, he's got a note, and he left me with the money. I hide the money under the handwritten notes and pen he brought. No point in leaving it sitting out. He returns, and I decided against making a joke about "what money?"]
J: [He seemed to notice that I looked very at home in my little section of this Starbucks. That's not good. I'm sick of this place already] You here often?
E: Every morning. I'm starting a business and working, so it's 5 every night, here to work on the business, then off to work.
J: Well, it's good what you're doing. [he counts it again and sighs] $130. I just came from the bank, and I got $140 out and had this $10. Not sure where that $20 is, but it looks like it's costing me $170. [takes out his wallet]
E: Forget about it.
J: No, no, I said $150.
E: It's your call, man.
J: Here you go. And I wrote up a quick note saying that I paid you for a broken tail light and bumper damage, if you don't mind signing it.
E: [It was a simple note, nothing lawyerish, not even printed on a printer] Of course. [I signed the simple document, and handed it back to him]
J: Did you want a copy?
E: Not necessary. Actually, there is one more thing... Since the accident, [I rubbed my neck emphatically] I've been having some neck pain...
J: [he grinned broadly] Really? And where were you during the accident again?
E: Well, I was a few miles away, but me and my car... we just have this bond...
J: [laughter]
E: You know, you thanked me for being a good guy about it, but you made it easy by being a good guy first.
J: Well, the first thing I did was go inside to see if they'd give me your number, but they couldn't because of client confidentiality or something, so I left them that note to give to you.
E: Well, I just appreciate you doing the right thing.
J: Thanks for being a stand up guy about this. Well, I gotta get back to my sick wife.
E: Oh! I hope she feels better.
J: It's cancer.
E: Oh...! [I could feel my eyes begin to water slightly. Over empathy strikes again!]
J: [he didn't break eye contact, his face didn't change from the pleasant expression he had the whole conversation, he didn't miss a beat] Don't worry about it, life goes on-- you're young, and you're here, makin' it happen. Thanks again for being a good guy about this.
E: [I barely croaked out:] Thanks. [not what I wanted to say, but it was what came out]

I can't believe I almost profited from this man.

If I said $300, he probably would have been less friendly, and less likely to open up to me. I would have continued on my merry way, $230 richer (or $296 if just got some red brake tape) and never given it a second thought. I would have never known that I created an unexpected expense for this man who's probably going through the hardest time in his life. Hell, even if he told me, there's no way he would have accepted his money back.

He was just some random jerk who smashed into my car, and inconvenienced my life. But after a few minutes with him, I have this connection to him that would never allow me to do what I could have just as easily do to some stranger. But that's what confuses me; technically, he's still a stranger. We're probably not going to hang out later, or talk about how my tail light is doing at the 5 Year Broken Tail Light Reunion. I only know a few things about him, and will probably never see him again, but I'll never regard him as some random jerk again.

This has been something I've pondered for a long time.
Things would be very different if everyone realized that all the nameless, faceless people they pass by every day had the same hopes, fears, ambitions, insecurities, loves, hates, and life that they had.

When people start seeing themselves in other people; how could they do wrong?
~From post A Blog's Purpose

Sure, his problems aren't my problems, and I could have just as easily been self-righteous about giving him a moderately expensive lesson to remind him to be more careful when he maneuvered his RV. He could also just as easily have been fucking with me, and enjoying a big laugh at my expense on the drive home. But I'm glad I did what I did, and the lesson I learned will stay with me.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this story, I hate to admit it but I need periodic reminding that strangers are complete people too.

NotClauswitz said...

RV's have some terrible-awful blind-spots, they don't turn very easily and it's hard to tell exactly where your "corners" are. I'm not sure I'd want to back-up an RV without a flagman with a walkie-talkie, even a trailer might be easier. I don't think anybody takes one out to drive like a jockey or play RV-Rodeo unless it's someone who's really a jackass.
When I drove to the Hospital at night when my Grandpa was dying I parked in a multi-story lot that was full of cars - and there were cars right behind me waiting to pull-in, and I suddenly wondered, how many more of "Us" were there for less than happy reasons, and how many were out on the street driving to or from a hospital with heavy hearts...

Anonymous said...

One of the wisest things ever said was said by Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Mike said...

I disagree with one part. You did do the capitalist thing and got value for value. Both of you profited from the transaction, possibly in more ways than money can measure.

wirecutter said...

Ya done good, man.