I met him just like I met anyone else I was robbing: at knife point. I know what you’re thinking, “but a gun would be better.” Well, when you’re as piss poor as me, you can’t afford a gun, much less bullets. Then again, maybe you're not thinking that at all.
Anyways, there I was, a thirty-two year old man warning the grey haired guy not to make any sudden movements. I don’t know what it was, but something told me to keep my distance. He was old, but he walked as someone important. Straight back, long strides, and in a nice suit.
This is my meal ticket, I thought.
I followed him into the alley and demanded everything he had on him. He just smiled at me. It was very unnerving when you are in my business. He spread his arms.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much on me. Just a nice suit for dinner and enough money for a few meals to go with it.”
He withdrew a beat up wallet from his inside pocket.
“There is four hundred dollars in here,” he waved it. “I will give it to you if you’d like.”
Didn't have much on him? My heart skipped a beat. Four hundred!? A few meals was right! But something made me hesitate. Every robbery I had done before hand had gone my way. I demanded things and they were given in fear. This man, although a few inches shorter, seemed to be gigantic. He stood with purpose as he held the cash out in front of me. No fear on his face.
“Come, you may have this money,” he said, his smile unwavering. “I might as well learn to cook a small meal every once in a while.”
I didn’t move.
“Come now, this transaction is based on trust,” the man explained. “You trust me to give you the money and I trust you not to hurt me after.”
I stayed where I was.
“Why are you so calm?” I asked. "Don't you know I could just stab you?"
I tried to sound threatening, but my voice wavered. The smile seemed to get bigger as he stowed the money and the wallet back in his pocket.
“That is an interesting conversation, son,” he said. “I’ll make you a deal, my dinner partner cancelled on me and I hate to eat alone. You have this one meal with me and I will not only tell you why I am so calm, but I will let you have the money left over.”
What!? Was this old man crazy? I weighed my options. I could actually stab him and leave him in the alley, taking the full four hundred. Or I could trust this daft coot and eat a meal. I was hungry, but what person in their right mind would offer to buy their robber a meal?
“Well, are you coming?”
I snapped back to the alley and found the man had slipped by me and was already on the sidewalk. I chased after him. As I had observed before, he took long strides and even running I had trouble keeping up. I saw him stop at a diner. Stowing the knife in my pocket, I followed him in.
“Two for a booth,” he greeted the hostess.
We were seated and I eyed the grey man across from me. He was looking at the menu, humming a little tune as if his life were not in danger, as if we were old friends.
“What’s your game?” I asked.
His tone had changed. He didn’t seem the friendly old man back in the alleyway. He was more direct. His had been a command, not a request. Against my better judgement, I ordered and waited.
“What is your name?”
“Timothy,” I answered.
“Occupation, aside from what you displayed in the alley?”
I remained silent.
“Dream, then. What do you like to do?”
I thought for a moment. This was a very odd conversation given the circumstances. This man hadn't turned me in yet. I decided to humor him, but then, what did I like to do?
“I don’t know," I said after thinking for a while.
“Well, we have this entire meal to find out.”
We talked. We talked for hours, even after our plates were cleaned up. I revealed more than I had intended. I don’t know. Maybe it was his powerful presence that made me want to talk. Or maybe I just wanted someone to listen. The stars had come out and the traffic slowed by the time we stepped out of that diner. I emerged feeling lighter, nothing weighing me down.
“Here,” the old man handed me a piece of paper.
I opened it. There was the rest of the money from the meal and something scribbled on the paper.
“If you like to work on machines, then this is the school for you,” he said. “Tell them Ralph vouches for you.”
I looked at the school name.
“I can’t afford this, even if I wanted to.”
“I’ll make you another deal,” Ralph said. “You keep your grades up and pass, I will foot the bill for you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had over three hundred dollars in my hands. I didn’t have to go to school and waste my time. Then I remembered how amazed I sounded talking about how I used to love machinery in high school. I had been good at it, too.
“This works on trust,” Ralph said. “My name is tacked with yours if you decide to do this. I look good or bad with you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Ralph nodded, gave me his kind smile, and walked away. I watched him go. It was difficult to contemplate what had just happened.
I spent the next few days in confusion. Just wandering the city and laying around the run down building I called home. Finally, I got up and went to the school. I told them who had sent me and was accepted after passing a few tests. The next four years were challenging, but I succeeded in passing my classes and getting certified to work in different professions, among them my favorite, electrical. Then came the fateful day. There was a knock at the door at my new residence. I opened it to find Ralph, his smile the same as when we had parted.
“I heard the good news,” he told me.
“I’ve been keeping tabs on you ever since you enrolled.”
He handed me an envelope. I opened it and my mouth dropped to the floor. Everything, my classes, my books, my tuition had been paid for. I collapsed in my chair. I was too surprised to say anything.
“I promised you,” Ralph said. “I also remember that I promised to tell you why I was so calm in the alley that day.”
That was right! He had never told me that day. He sat down on the opposite chair.
“When I was younger than you were, I had no idea where I was going with my life and started to run with a bad crowd. Nothing like you, though, I’m talking drugs.”
I leaned in, fascinated that I hadn’t learned anything about this man through our first talk. I had been all about me.
“Well, I met this man while I was in a drug induced rage. He wupped me but good. When I woke, I was calmer and he made the same deal with me as I did you. Apparently, food opens mouths in more ways than one.”
Ralph chuckled, seeming lost in the memory.
“He helped me on my feet and paid for my rehabilitation, then gave me an entry level job at his company. I’m talking cleaning floors and toilets and such. Nasty stuff. Through that, I was determined to get better education and rise from the floors, literally. I became an accountant and earned a decent pay and I still can use my skills after my retirement.”
The silence hung in the air as he came back to us in that moment.
“When I had finished my education and succeeded in my dream, he came to me out of the blue-”
Like Ralph had done to me.
“-He told me that he had paid for everything and that I was indebted to him now.”
If I were as poor as I had been before, my heart would have sunk.
“Don’t worry,” I piped up. “I will pay you everything and more as soon as I get-”
“No, no, no,” he held up a hand. “You are not indebted to me financially. How you will pay your bill is this: when you are faced in a situation like I was, when there is someone asking for help, even if they don’t know they are, that you will treat them with the same kindness and generosity I showed you.”
I could only nod.
“Do this for ten people, and if they succeed, then tell them how to repay the debt as well.”
“But what if they don’t want a meal and just want whatever they’ve asked? What if I had refused your offer?”
“Then give them what they need at that moment,” Ralph said. “It won’t help them in the long run, but it will give them temporary happiness. That won’t count as your ten people though.”
I kind of figured that.
“Well, I should be off,” Ralph stood. “I wish you the best.”
“Wait!” I rushed after him. “How will I let you know that I’ve paid off the debt?”
“You won’t. This debt is for you to keep track of. Either you will be honest with it, or not. It's all up to you.”
And I would feel bad for skipping a part or all of that debt. I understood where he was coming from.
“Which number was I?”
He smiled. His kind smile that I had grown to admire.
“Well, who knows? I lost track after fourteen six years before I met you. This helping people thing can be very addictive.”
I never met him again. Old and in my sixties, I have repaid my debt and then some. Ralph was right, helping others is addictive. But with everyone that I help better themselves, they go out to do the same. Maybe one day, the world will be filled with people willing to help others just to make it a better place. That’s some dream, eh?
This story came to me after watching "Nine Lives" the 7th episode of the 1973 series Kung Fu starring David Carradine.
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