Remember the movie “City Slickers” where Billy Crystal discusses his “worse day” and “best day?” Last week I had a “top five” best day and it all began with an afterthought to a simple question.
I had asked a business associate from the East coast if she was going to spend her tax rebate check to help spur our stumbling economy. She told me nonchalantly that her husband and she decided to give their refund to a local women’s shelter since they usually get hit pretty hard in an economic downturn. After all, she added, “we really didn’t need the money.”
Later that evening, on my drive home, I thought about what she had done and how inspired I was by her decision. It made me feel good about our friendship.
As I turned off from Pacific Coast Highway in Dana point, California, I passed an older man standing on the corner next to a grocery cart with a dog tied to the front bar. I could tell he was “a long way from home” by his appearance and by the sheer size of his belongings stuffed into his metal cart. As I eyed him in my mirror, I thought to myself, “I bet that guy could use some money ...no, he’s alright ...yeah maybe he does ...nah ... oh why not?” I spun around, reached down for a twenty dollar bill, folded it, and pulled alongside the man.
“Are you on the road?” I asked. “My dog and I are heading down to San Diego (65 miles south).” His teeth were missing a few members, his hair was long and matted, and I noticed open cuts on both arms. “Could you use this?” I offered the money to him and motioned to his dog. “I want you take care of your dog for me. I have one of my own.” “I will for sure. He’s my best friend. Thank you. Thank you very much.” As I started to pull away, he asked for my name. “I’m Nic.” “I’m Sam and this here is Joker.” The dog had come over to my passenger door to check out the scene. Sam reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you, my friend. We appreciate it.”
Shaking his hand, I gave him a friendly scolding. “Now make sure your dog is OK. He looks like a beauty.”
“We’ll be fine.” Sam smiled and nodded and started back to his cart as I drove away.
I thought of my East Coast friend and remembered how good it always feels to be on this side of giving, even on a small basis. When I got home, my own dog was her usual self, barking my arrival and demand- ing I pet her. The more I stroked her, the more I thought of Sam and his dog and the reality of the two of them spending the night in a park or on the nearby beach that night. Route 1 (PCH) is a main artery for the home- less as they make their way from Seattle to San Diego on a regular basis. But this time, this formula (man and dog) really bothered me.
I scooped up six cups of my dog’s dry food into a zip-lock bag. Then, in another bag, I added a package of cheese, two bottles of water, a box of crackers, and a tangerine. I headed out to find Sam and Joker.
Sure enough, I found them about two blocks further along PCH. I pulled up and handed the bags to Sam who seemed startled to see me again. “I brought Joker some dog food and there’s some snacks for you.”
Sam pulled back a jacket atop his cart and showed me a 25-pound bag of dog food he was carrying for Joker. When he assured me he didn’t really need it, I told him to take the bags anyway and reminded him there was snacks inside for him. I asked him if i could get him a motel room for the night but he told me he couldn’t get a room with Joker on board.
“Well, let me try anyway,” I said. “Stay here and I’ll be back shortly.”
I drove on into Dana Point and stopped at four different motels checking for pet allowances, even offering to pay an upcharge. But Sam was right; nobody allowed pets. Feeling helpless, I stopped and bought Sam a chicken carry-out dinner and hit my ATM for a few more bucks to give Sam some “safety net” for his journey. When I returned, Sam and Joker were still standing at their last stop and he waved to me while I wait- ed at the stoplight to turn left. I dreaded having to tell him I couldn’t help him anymore. Sam untied Joker from the cart and walked over to my car next to the curb.
“You’re right, Sam. No takers. I’m so sorry.”
“No problem,” he said. “We’ll be just fine. I plan to call my son who lives in San Diego and he’ll come and pick me up if I ask him.”
“Why don’t you let me call him for you on my car phone?”
“Thanks but I don’t want to impose on Jimmy. He’s got his hands full and I don’t want to trouble him.”
“Well at least take this chicken for tonight.”
Sam’s eyes lit up and he reached into his pocket for something. I thought maybe he was going to try to pay me with the money I had just given him but, instead, he handed me a hand written note on a blank check, thanking me for my efforts. I read the first few lines and it blew me away. He had signed the note with a picture of Joker on the back (see attached) and, as I tried to make out the rest of the note, he began to explain his situation.
“I had a house in Anaheim (45 miles north). Joker got scared on the 4th of July and started to chew up the fence in my back yard. My landlord gave me an ultimatum . . . either Joker goes or I lose my place. So here we are; I couldn’t part with my dog. He’s all I got.
“Sam, just do me a favor and take care of your dog for me. And take this in case you find a room some night.” I slipped the extra dollars into his front pocket and he just shook his head.”
“How will I ever thank you for all this?’ he asked.
I told him his note was the nicest thank-you I had ever received and I was only passing along a favor in the cycle of life. I made him promise he would call me when he made it to San Diego. I jotted down my home and office numbers for him and he gave me his son’s telephone number for back-up. We shook hands again, waved good-bye and I watched him head back to the corner with Joker in toll.
End of story. Everyone wins. Sam and Joker get a boost. I get to feel good doing the favor.
Except for the telephone number of Sam’s son, Jimmy. I couldn’t resist dialing it to see if there was even a real “Jimmy” in San Diego. Sure enough, a young man answered and, after telling him who I was and how I met his father, he told me he and his brother in Seattle had been looking for their father for eight days. They had the Anaheim police on the lookout for Sam and were worried sick about his whereabouts. Jimmy asked me if I thought I could find Sam again for him. He wanted him to call so he could come and pick him up.
Back into my car, I pulled alongside Sam and Joker about two more blocks from where I left them. They were sharing the chicken dinner atop his cart. I dialed Jimmy and handed the telephone to Sam who seemed shocked that I had found him again. He seemed reluctant to talk at first but then began to tell Jimmy his plight with his landlord. I pulled around the corner to park my car and, when I returned, Sam was telling Jimmy how much he loved him and that he would call him later that night. Sam said goodbye and handed me the telephone. Shaking his head, he told me he knew Jimmy had his hands full with a new baby and a terminally sick in- law and he didn’t want to impose on him right now. But he then reiterated his promise to call Jimmy later that night. When I turned to leave, he thanked me again but, this time, I just tapped my chest and he did the same back to me. Enough was said. I walked back to my car and we gave each other the “thumbs up” sign as I drove away.
I called Jimmy again when I got home to reassure him that Sam was OK and that he was indeed planning to call him later that evening. Jimmy then told me how Sam was once a sportswriter for the San Diego Union- Tribune and even had his own radio sport show back in Massachusetts. He thinks Sam just gave up the last few weeks, choosing to live alone with his dog. I explained to him that dog lovers are like that and I would choose the same plight if it meant giving up my own “best friend.” We agreed to stay in touch and I promised I would follow up in a few days.
Afterwards, I read Sam’s thank-you note again and I taped it to my computer. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I decided to share this story with a short list of friends, thinking maybe any one of you might get inspired as I did. Thank you Kathy (East Coast), thank you Jimmy, and finally, thank you Sam and Joker for making last Thursday one of the best days of my life.
I called Jimmy on Sunday for an update. He told me Sam did call him later that first night and he drove right up and took them home. Jimmy said he didn’t even recognize his father at first; he had gone that far down- hill. They found a nearby temporary dog shelter for Joker while Sam is recuperating in a motel until he gets his strength and weight back. Jimmy wants to get him a used computer and printer so he can return to writing instead of “drinking a little beer” and getting down on himself. I told him I wanted to come down when Sam is feeling better and have lunch with him, maybe even take him to a Padre baseball game. As a fellow writer and sports fan, I’m sure we would have a lot to talk about.
Yesterday I came up with an idea to get Sam and Jimmy to a baseball game. I found a San Diego men’s shelter on the internet and worked out a day trip to Qaulcomm Stadium to watch my St.Louis Cardinals play the Padres on Labor Day. This particular shelter has a one-year turnaround program where residents agree to work themselves back into independent living in return for room and board. The program director liked my idea and agreed to let me take 10-15 residents to the game. I called a friend of mine, Rick Drake, who has a photoshoot RV service, who donated transportation to the game and did all the grilling of hot dogs and hamburgers before the game in the parking lot.
When I called Jimmy to invite him and Sam, I learned that Sam was flying to Massachusetts on Thursday of this week to be with his brother and sister and to receive family support Jimmy can’t give him right now. Joker is out of the dog shelter and is staying with Jimmy and has a reserved airline ticket for later this month to rejoin Sam. So our baseball outing (without Sam) is still on for Labor Day but I plan to call Sam from the stadium during the game to thank him again.
Our first tailgate feast and baseball game with the San Diego Mission residents went even better than we imagined. My St. Louis Cardinals defeated the San Diego Padres 4-0 and our rookie pitcher, Bud Smith, pitched a no-hitter! Better yet, the guys all loved the day's experience and when their shuttle pulled away, heading back to the shelter, we were showered with an endless chorus of thank-you's from their bus. We knew then we were going to do more events going forward. The day was September 3, 2001. Eight days later, the world experienced the horrors of 9-11.