A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


Go ahead. Look up the word "curmudgeon" in the dictionary. You'll see. There's no definition there. Just a picture of Dan.

Dan isn't a bad guy. Not at all. He's a good guy, actually. His benevolence and generosity are well-known. Professionally, he has a great reputation in a field where reputation is everything. He's a pro's pro, and has been for many years. But he's sort of... well, crusty. And churlish. And cantankerous.

You know -- curmudgeony.

That's why Lindsey hesitated a moment before taking the seat next to him at the shoe-shine stand. She and Dan have worked together often on various projects, and they always get along just fine. Still, he intimidates her -- partly because she respects him so much, and partly because of . . . well, you know . . . the c-word.

But an early winter storm had taken its toll on her shoes, and she had a big presentation to make -- the kind that makes you grasp for any edge you can find, including clean, shiny shoes. So she climbed into the chair next to Dan, and for the next few minutes they chatted. No, that's not quite right -- for the next few minutes Lindsey chatted self-consciously, and Dan grunted every now and then. He wasn't being rude or anything. He was just being Dan.

You know -- curmudgeony.

When Dan's shoes were done, he inspected them carefully and spoke quietly but firmly to the shoe shine proprietor as he paid his bill. Then he bid Lindsey a terse good-bye and was gone much to Lindsey's relief. She relaxed while the rest of her shoe shine was completed, and tried to gather her thoughts for her presentation. When her shine was finished she stepped down from the chair and reached into her purse for her wallet.

No need for that, ma'am, the shoe shiner said, smiling. That gentleman who was here before, he already paid for your shoe shine.

He what? Lindsey was dumbfounded.

He paid for yours when he paid for his. Nice guy, huh?

The kindness of Dan's gesture brought a smile to Lindsey's face and to her heart. She went to her presentation feeling happy, buoyant and full of confidence. Not surprisingly, it went remarkably well. In fact, everything seemed to go better for her that day and not just because she had such nice, shiny shoes.

A few days later Lindsey was standing in line at a mall eatery when she noticed a ruckus in the line in front of her. A young mother with several restless children had come up short of change and was rummaging through her purse hoping to find money to pay for the food she had ordered. Her children were crying, and she appeared to be near tears herself until Lindsey stepped forward, paid the missing balance (interestingly, almost exactly the same amount as her shoe shine would have cost) and helped the woman and her family get their meal to a table. When the grateful woman asked for her name and address so she could pay her back the money, Lindsey told her not to worry about it.

By helping you, I'm paying back someone who did something nice for me, she said. If you want to pay me back, you're going to have to find someone else to help.

And she almost looked . . . you know, curmudgeony when she said it.

--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and