A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


It wasn’t exactly a crisis.  I mean, it was only a matter of 80 cents.  The price of a candy bar, or a can of soda or a bottle of water.  How big of a deal can that be?

Still, it was embarrassing.  I was short 80 cents for the gas I had already pumped, and the convenience store clerk was not interested in my problem.

“Thirteen dollars and 20 cents is all that I have,” I told her for the third time.

“You need $14,” she said, without a trace of sympathy or understanding in her voice.

“Can you try running the debit card through again?” I asked.  “Maybe you did it wrong.”

She stared at me coldly.  “I didn’t do it wrong,” she said.  “I’ve already run it through twice.  It’s denied.  Insufficient funds.”

An older woman and a teenaged girl stepped into line behind me just in time to hear that.  Wonderful.  This was awkward and embarrassing.  I’ve really come to rely on that debit card.  I don’t carry credit cards or a checkbook, and I rarely carry much cash (it was a miracle that I had $13.20 on me at the time).  Anita and I have learned through painful experience that it is best to keep me on a pretty short leash financially.  So I carry a debit card for my purchases and turn in my receipts to Anita at the end of each day.  The system has worked pretty well – until now.

“Don’t you have a credit card or a check or something?” the young woman at the counter asked in a tone that made me want to tweak her nose ring.

“This is all I have,” I said as I pushed my cash toward her.

“It isn’t enough.”

“I know,” I said.  “I can bring the rest tomorrow.  I just work around the corner.  I’m in here all the time.  I promise – I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

It must have been the suit and tie I was wearing that made her not trust me.

“Sorry,” she said in a way that made it absolutely clear she really wasn’t.  “Can’t do it.”

“OK, there’s a dollar in my desk at work,” I said.  “I can be back here in 10 minutes.”

“If you drive your car off the lot without paying I have to call the cops,” she said.  “They’ll pick you up for theft.”

“For 80 cents?” I asked incredulously.

“Theft is theft,” she said coldly.

“But I would be right back . . .”

“Excuse me?”

A soft, gentle voice behind me suddenly interrupted the downward spiral of my conversation with the clerk.  I turned to see the woman behind me smiling and extending her hand toward me.  “Here’s 80 cents,” she said, dropping a few coins into my hand.

My first reaction was to decline the woman’s generous offer as a matter of pride and principle.  I was just looking for a little compassion and understanding from this clerk – that’s all I wanted.  But then I looked into the woman’s eyes and realized that there was plenty of compassion and understanding in the gas station.  It just wasn’t behind the counter.

“Thank you,” I said, a little embarrassed and flustered.  “How can I repay you?”

“Oh, I’m sure sometime in the next few days you’ll come upon someone who can use 80 cents,” she said.  “Give it to them.”

I turned and dropped the coins into the clerk’s hand.  She seemed almost disappointed that she didn’t get to call in the police.  I probably should have said something triumphant or clever, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate in the face of such kindness.

Which, come to think of it, really IS a big deal – even if it wasn’t exactly a crisis.

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— © Joseph Walker

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