I like to set daily challenges for myself; something that betters me, in my opinion, as a person. Sometimes that means trying to be extra kind to that co-worker that I’m not a fan of. I force myself to go into work and, although my blood curdles when I’m in his or her vicinity, I smile and ask how their day is and hold the door open and they say, “Thank you,” but I can tell that they despise me as well because we’ve had several run-ins and we’re both being totally fake but it builds good character, I guess…
Sometimes I’ll say, “Today I’m buying dinner for the car behind me in the drive-thru”. This is one of those good deeds that is a gamble because you’re either going to get $4.16 worth of good karma or you’re going to get $62.34 worth of good karma. You just kind of spin that wheel and cross your fingers. And yes, I’ll admit that when I’m feeling generous, I will often glance into my rear view mirror and try to gage just how much generosity the car behind me could eat…
Lately, however, I’ve been trying something a little different. It started while I was standing inside of a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich shop and was staring at this sweaty teenager that was making my sandwich. This specific incident happened just over a week ago so my dog was still alive but I knew that I had to dig a grave for her in the morning. While I stood in this semi-empty restaurant, I stared at this scrawny little geek and I thought about myself when I used to work at Subway in high school. I thought about how I had to dig this grave and put my dog to sleep and how I was pretty sad and about how I used to have cancer and boy, oh, boy, aren’t I just down on my luck and I bet every single person standing here has absolutely zero problems going on in their lives and then……… I realized how completely arrogant I was being. Disgustingly, grotesquely, self-centered.
It’s so easy to picture the entire world revolving around your life story when you live inside your own head; everyone else just an extra in your movie.
I took another look around and tried to imagine what was really happening in their lives. Sick parents. Dying siblings. Welfare. Ulcers. Migraines. Depression. Most the kids behind the counter looked like they were about ready to graduate from high school. I wondered what they were all planning to do now that “life” was starting.
I suddenly, desperately (and weirdly) wanted to know what everyone was experiencing. I knew all these people were just like me and I wanted to connect with them and tell them about my cancer and my children and here’s some advice and I wanted them to tell me something about my dog and help me put things into perspective.
Everyone has a story. Not only that, everyone has a good story. They’ve done something, they’ve been somewhere, they’ve seen something, they’ve been involved in some way. There is something dynamic and interesting and fascinating and incredible about everyone but these things just float right under the radar and are forgotten because nobody asks.
So I’ve started asking.
This is my new challenge.
If I meet someone on the street, I push against every instinct that is inside of me to push the conversation past the standard, “Hello / how are you / thank you / that will be seven-twenty-five-please-pull-ahead-have-a-good-day-sir” into the meatier stuff… and it’s this stuff, these bizarre small stories that I’d like to share here in a scattered series. Talking to Strangers.
I don’t always have all the details and the stories aren’t always long but the bits and pieces I hear are so rich, I think they’re worth passing along.
This first one is about a man named Jake from Montana.
Jake is early 30s, white. Tall. Very tall. The type of guy that sets his water on top of a refrigerator because it’s closer to his range than the kitchen table. He’s got a red baseball cap on, a Miller High Life t-shirt and a Foster’s beer clutched in his hand; one of those enormous cans that really contain three “American” beers itself. It might be his second one. It might be his third. His eyes are the same color as his cap.
We’re at a barbecue and I’ve just met this man a few hours previous but haven’t really spoken to him. We’re sitting across from one another in a sloppy circle consisting of five people.
A dog slowly saunters through our group and Jake says, “How much does that dog weigh?” and my brother-in-law says, “80 pounds” and Jake says, “80 pounds? Last time I weighed Bud, he was 120.”
I ask who Bud is and he says it’s his dog. Something called a Chesapeake. After a quick Google search I find that it’s not dissimilar to a variety of Retrievers.
Then Jake says, mostly reminiscent to himself, “Getting that dog over the fence was not easy,” and I say, “Why were you lifting a dog over a fence?” and he says, “Because I stole him,” and I say, “What do you mean?” and he says, “The dog didn’t belong to me and I stole him. I crawled over a fence, picked up the dog, and stole him. My dog is a stolen dog. Stole,” and me, still confused by standard definitions say, “This dog belonged to somebody and you took him?” and he says, “Yes.”
And then he goes on.
Bud was living in the country, on a farm, in someone’s backyard. They had tied him to a tree with a small piece of rope, so short that he wasn’t able to move more than three or four feet away from the tree he’d spent his life at. The rope was so tight around his neck that all of the fur from his shoulder blades to the backs of his ears had worn away, making him look like some kind of reverse mane-less lion.
His “owners” had set a piece of plywood up at a 45 degree angle so he had shade from the sun and Bud had taken it upon himself to dig a hole into the ground as far as he could, presumably because the Earth is cooler the deeper you go.
Well, some dogs get all the luck and one Fourth of July someone shot a firework at Bud and he panicked and ran down into his hole and got his leg tangled in his short length of rope and nobody ever noticed or cared and finally the leg sort of just fell off and it truly is a wonder that it didn’t become infected.
ABOVE: A Chesapeake Retriever missing a leg carrying a duck missing a life.
So it’s at this point in time that Jake is working at a very popular sporting goods store in Montana and he gets wind about this three-legged dog from a friend of a friend and he decides to go out and investigate the situation. Well, low and behold, there actually is a three legged dog in the middle of nowhere stuck to a tree. He says, “It’s being fed, I guess, and it’s being watered, I guess, and it has shelter, I guess but………..” He takes a long drink from his Foster’s and grimaces.
Jake says he goes out there just to see the dog. It sounded mostly like he was trying to size up the situation… could it be as bad as this girl was saying? Could this be like one of those Animal Planet rescue shows? He tells me that he didn’t plan to take the dog and he didn’t plan to keep the dog but rarely does life care about our plans.
He hops the fence, slowly approaches the growling yellow eyes coming from this earthy hole and befriends the lonely / angry / neglected canine with a few kind words. In my mind he lures him out with beef jerky but he never actual said that so rest assured that it is me taking creative liberty.
Jake cuts the rope with his pocket knife, takes the nameless three-legged dog back to the fence and somehow (I never asked) hoisted him up and over. He gets back to his car and calls his wife, telling her that he’s headed straight to the vet.
I asked if the vet had questions and he says, “Yes.” I say, “Did you tell him the dog was stolen?” and he says, “Yes” and I ask, “What did the vet say?” and he just shrugs and instead of answering the question simply says, “$45 bucks for shots. Dog loves my kids.”