It was a cold, foggy, summer Saturday morning in Berkeley, California. I had just left the coffee shop and was walking towards my freshly painted car. It was Cherry Apple red. And I had spent the summer working on the paint job. It was my second restoration. And all the mistakes I had made on the first car were mitigated on the second. I was so proud of myself I could dance. In fact, I was sure my vintage VW Beetle was the toast of the town. I had no doubt that everyone was looking at it with my same joy and wonder. And that’s when I saw them: two bearded, bedraggled characters whose hardened faces and ratty clothes betrayed their origins. I knew even before they did that they were going to attack my car. And I livened my pace. But the smaller of the two was already running towards the brand new paint job. And before I could intervene, he was kicking the perfectly rounded German steel fender, shouting, “Yeah, yeah!” His companion, a tall man with a small dog clutched to his chest was laughing and blowing cigarette smoke from his mouth. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” I shouted. But instead of running off as I expected, the two men stood frozen still. That’s when I saw my opening. And I made a show of my moral outrage in front of any pedestrians or bystanders who happened to be witnessing this urban crisis. I was somewhere into my fourth or fifth remonstration on property rights and personal dignity when I realized the shorter man was crying. He was saying, “Hey, mister, hey mister.” His companion was crying too. And then I saw the flecks of dust and broken cardboard clinging to their clothes from the storefront where they had passed the night before. The smaller man had his hand extended to touch my arm, but he pulled back when he saw me looking at his filthy, cracked fingers. “I… I… I… I’m sorry, mister,” he stuttered. “I… I… I… didn’t know.” “Yeah, we’re sorry, mister,” said the bigger man. His eyes were wobbling in their sockets, flickering at a speed I had never seen. I knew quite suddenly that both the men were mentally ill. My hands mechanically extracted five dollars from my wallet. “Here,” I said. “Here’s five bucks. Can you watch my car for me?” The two men bowed and scraped to the edge of the sidewalk, promising to watch my car. When I returned from the bank ten minutes later, they were huddled against each other, protecting my car from phantom attackers. They wouldn’t look at me, though, not even once as I pulled away. And I was flushed with shame and grief and a welling sense of self-loathing.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.