My wife likes to volunteer me.
My wife likes to volunteer me to help.
My wife likes to volunteer me to help in front of people who may need but aren’t asking for my help – ensuring that I look like a dick if I decline.
For example, when our neighbor Janice casually mentioned a refrigerator in her garage that needed to get to her adult son across town.
“Honey?” my wife asked, “Can you do it? You could use Mary’s truck.”
We’ve been together for 26 years, apparently not long enough for my wife to realize that I don’t want to spend all day Saturday blowing off my plans so I can move a refrigerator across town for a neighbor we talk to once every six months.
“I think Mary’s gone for the day,” I said, clenching my teeth as laser beams of irritation shot from my eyes.
Oblivious, she doubled down, “We’ve got the code to her house. Why don’t you call her to see if we can grab the truck keys?”
When this happens with an acquaintance, it’s annoying, but when it’s a stranger, it’s maddening.
Walking through Home Goods last weekend, we passed a couple digging through a pile of mirrors, trying to get a look at the one at the very back, pinned against the wall.
“Can you help them hold those mirrors?” my wife said as we passed by them.
I acted like I didn’t hear her and kept walking but caught a glimpse of the guy giving me the stink eye.
I’ve told her repeatedly not to volunteer me in front of people, and instead, direct some of her concern towards me. Maybe I don’t want to help? Maybe I do, but it should be my choice. Pull me aside and ask. That way, I have a choice and don’t look like a jerk if I decline.
But it’s her nature. She’s nice, genuinely nice, and is always looking to help.
I have a problematic relationship with being helpful. Sometimes people are struggling and really need help. Other times they’re a pain in the ass and need help. I have sympathy for the former and not much for the later.
But I still try to put my A-holeness aside and help whenever I can. Sometimes it goes well.
Recently, I found myself stuck behind a driver at the exit of a parking lot who could not figure out the intricacies of a payment kiosk. My first impulse was to lay on the horn, but with the kids in the car, I thought that’d be a bad look.
But I was frustrated, as this person was delaying my trip home.
“Oh my god!” I exclaimed as I put the car in neutral, threw off my seatbelt, and strode angerly toward my bête noire.
I was glad I didn’t honk because it turned out that the driver of this Brady Bunch-like station wagon was an elderly lady, and her even more elderly husband was in the passenger seat.
“Hi there,” I said with a big smile and my most compassionate voice. “Having some trouble?”
“I don’t think this thing is working,” the sweet old lady said.
“Yes, they can definitely be tricky. Do you mind if I try it for you?”
6.87 seconds later, the fee was paid, the gate lifted, and Carol and Mike were on their way.
I felt good, not just because I acted like a decent human being and helped somebody in need, but because I did so in front of my kids, hopefully setting an example for them.
As I was getting back into my car, a parking lot attendant, alerted by the growing line of cars at the exit – and who had seen my interaction with the seniors – came up to my window and handed me a comp parking ticket.
“Thanks,” she said. “I was stuck over in the other lot, but I saw what you did for that couple. I appreciate it.”
I agree with the poet and theologian John Henry Newman who said, “Virtue is its own reward” – but saving 25 bucks was pretty sweet too.
The truth is, I usually defer from helping due to my hang-ups. But sometimes, it’s because of what happened to John Nutting.
My first memory of John dates to 1972, about a week after my family moved into our brand-new tract home.
He and his family lived three doors down, moving in just before we did. One day there was a knock on the door, and when my dad opened it, there was John. He explained that he was getting all the guys in the neighborhood together to help out on a project and wanted to know if my father was interested?
It seemed that when the movers delivered the Harker’s belongings to their house around the corner, they refused to move the piano inside, leaving it on the driveway. John reasoned that if all the guys put their heads (and backs) together, they could figure a way to get that sucker in.
That's the type of guy John was. Always trying to help people.
I will never forget the fantastic scene that unfolded that warm summer day as my new neighborhood friends and I watched ten 20-something fathers stand around that piano and study it with intense looks - each proposing options and methods of ingress.
However, the best part came after all the grunting, yelling, and sweating was through when a cold case of domestic beer miraculously showed up, and this newly formed band of brothers luxuriated in the afternoon shade, reveling in their Herculean feat.
Like my dad, John was handy, and his garage was full of old radios, vintage bikes, and a 57' Chevy – all in various states of repair – which is probably why my father clicked with him right off the bat.
Also, like my dad, he could relate to kids.
As a kid, you regard most adults like entities from another world. You can't relate to them, and the more they try to relate to you, the weirder it gets. But with John, it was never that way. No matter what age you were, talking with him was like talking to a best friend - always a relaxing and comfortable situation.
And John was a neighborhood fixture. If you didn't see him on one of his twice-daily jogs or working on a project in his garage, you would inevitably run into him at the local supermarket where he was the manager.
He was always there to help, always there to lend a hand, always the embodiment of the purposely concise Yiddish word "Mensch."
When I got older, I moved out of my parent's house – okay, got kicked out – either way, I saw John less frequently. But when I did visit, it was strangely reassuring to drive by his house, see him in his garage, and receive the same friendly wave I remembered as a kid.
After my father died, John made a point of regularly checking in on my mom to see if she was okay, to see if he could help her with anything or if there was something around the house that needed to be fixed.
My mother liked John’s attention. It comforted her, and on some level, he became a proxy male presence in her life - in all the best and most platonic ways.
Then in 2003, after forty-plus years in the grocery industry, John finally decided to retire.
He and his wife planned to spend their retirement years traveling the country in the new RV already parked in front of their house.
A large portion of that travel involved visiting their grown daughters and numerous grandchildren - of whom John spoke about with great joy.
One month to the day that he was to retire, John got a call from the manager of one of his company's other locations, wanting to know if he could cover his shift so he could attend church.
Always willing to help out, John agreed, and before leaving, phoned his wife at work to let her know about the change in plans.
Less than three hours later, he was dead, lying in a pool of his own blood, with a steel blade sticking out his chest.
Not long after John arrived at work, Joseph Parker, a mentally deranged employee, entered the store wearing a green beret, a long, dark overcoat, and brandishing a 5-foot long samurai sword.
He initially confronted a floor manager, but walked away, instead choosing another employee as victim - nearly decapitating her with one stroke.
At John's funeral, a fellow employee recounted to me what happened next.
Customers and employees ran for cover in a panic as the swordsman looked for other victims. Some got out of the store, but those trapped began to grab items off the shelves like trashcan lids and beach chairs to defend themselves.
John was initially in his office, away from the attack, but came running out at the sound of commotion.
When he saw that someone was chasing after and attacking people with a samurai sword, he could have easily exited the store to safety. Instead, he ran towards the killer and tried to distract him, drawing his attention away from potential victims.
And when he found himself cornered, he tried to talk to Joseph, to reason with him, to assure him that he was there to help. But his words fell on the deaf and insane ears of his executioner, who took his blade and ran it straight through John’s heart.
John died a public but lonely death.
There was no last kiss from his wife.
No final words from his loving daughters.
No slight press of the hand before departing from the grandchildren he cherished so much.
It was only him and a cold steel blade, the one that robbed him of every moment he’d ever lived – or should have lived.
And all because he wanted to help a co-worker attend church. Help customers get to safety. Help a paranoid schizophrenic from himself.
Over the years, though I have struggled in doing so, I’ve gotten better at taking the initiative in helping others.
And I know I demean myself and dishonor John’s memory if I try conflating my aversion to charity with the circumstances of his death.
However, there are still times when I fail to extend a hand more from a sense of self-preservation than inconvenience or annoyance.
Such was the case last Saturday night.
Sitting on my regular perch at the Whole Foods bar, I suddenly heard a loud, guttural growl to my right.
“Get the fuck away from me!”
I turned to see what appeared to be a homeless man – the shopping cart piled high with trash bags being the dead giveaway – stuck halfway between the threshold of the exit door, while a young Millennial, with a look of loathing and disgust on his face, hurled insults at him.
The man was old, and frail, and was struggling to get his life on wheels out the door with the urgency of someone who had places to go and people to see.
But I knew he didn’t.
I took a pull from my beer, arose from my seat, and walked over to the man, with the intention of holding open the door, and if needed, helping to get his shopping cart through.
As I got near him, I said, “Hang on, let me get that for you.”
“You fucking touch me, and I’ll kill you,” came the response, punctuated by the sight of a metal rod clenched in his hand, now raised above his head.
“No problem,” I said, backing away, happy to return to my beer.
He didn’t need my help.
Man With Sword Kills 2 at Grocery Store (Los Angeles Times)