Montgomery, Alabama—it was late afternoon, the grocery store was busy. It was a big weekend, hurried customers played demolition derby with shopping carts.
I saw two young men shopping together. Their basket was overflowing with bachelor food. Microwave dinners, hotdogs, potato chips, Michelob Ultra, spray cheese.
The youngest man was wearing cargo shorts. His right leg was disfigured. Below the knee, his leg was mostly shinbone without any visible muscle, covered in scars.
I followed the men around the supermarket because I am a writer, and writers are odd people.
When they reached the self-checkout lane, I was a few customers behind them in line.
An old man approached the men. They had a brief conversation. I tried to listen to their words but their voices were too quiet.
The only thing I heard the elderly man say was: “Where were you stationed?”
“Afghanistan,” the young man answered. Also, I heard the words, “ambush,” “explosion,” and “physical therapy.”
When the young men finished scanning items, I will never forget what happened next. The old man removed his wallet and swiped his credit card.
The young men tried to stop him, but they were too slow. The man replaced his wallet, then winked at them and said, “You snooze, you lose, fellas.”
I can still see that old man when I close my eyes. Some things stick with you, I guess.
Just like the time I saw an elderly woman in Franklin, Tennessee. Her car wouldn’t start. Three men from inside the gas station rushed to help her.
They were large men with long beards, dirty clothes, and work boots. They crawled over her car until they figured out the problem beneath the hood.
“It’s her serpentine belt!” one man finally shouted.
That was all it took. They leapt into their truck and left. After a few minutes, they returned with a new belt from the auto parts store.
The woman tried to pay them, but they refused. I heard one of the men say:
“Hey, I know how you could repay me, you could let me take you to dinner, ma’am.”
It was only a joke. This woman was old enough to remember when Colonel Sanders was still a private. But it made her laugh.
A few weeks ago, someone wrote me about an old man in ratty clothes who was asking for money outside Walmart.
He wasn’t there long when a man wearing a Navy-blue uniform came striding toward him. The old man got spooked. He darted away when he saw the uniform.
But the man in uniform was not there to run the man off. He was a fire-medic. He called after the elderly man, “Sir! Don’t leave! You’re not in trouble! Please wait!”
The old man stopped. The fireman handed him a white plastic bag full of Chinese take-out. He asked the old man how he was feeling, and if he had any health problems.
The old man shook his head.
Then, the fireman handed the man a business card. “If you ever need any help, sir, come find us, we’ll hook you up.”
They tell me the old man ate fried rice and sesame chicken with both hands until he was wearing most of it.
Anyway, yesterday morning was a beautiful sunrise. I woke up early. I watched the colors over the highway. I drove to meet my cousin at a breakfast joint.
The restaurant parking lot was full. Inside were truck drivers, young professionals, families, and working-class men getting a caffeine fix.
At the table behind my cousin were men in police uniforms. They were quiet, middle-aged men with plates full of bacon.
They were interrupted by a small blonde girl who approached their table and said, “‘Scuse me, are you guys policemen?”
The men exchanged a look. “We certainly are,” one officer said.
“I like policemen,” she said.
She was as cute as a duck in a hat.
The officer said, “Do you wanna be our deputy, miss?”
She smiled big enough to rupture a muscle.
One officer removed a plastic badge from his pocket. He pinned it on the girl’s shirt. Then, he told her to hold her right hand up.
He swore her in, officially. The girl’s mother took a picture with a cellphone.
The officer added, “If you ever need us, darling, we’re always here to help you.”
When it was time to pay our bill, my cousin whispered to our waitress, “I wanna pay for those officers’ breakfasts, ma’am.”
Our waitress only laughed at us.
“There sure are a lotta good folks in this world,” she said. “You’re the third guy this morning who offered to do that. Sorry, but another customer beat you to it.”
You snooze, you lose.