The making of a Bad Samaritan.
Journalists love to report heart-warming stories of people "making a difference" (as "NBC Nightly News" dubs its series about regular folks doing good). Despite what you might think of the media's penchant for negative news, give us a human-interest feel-good story to contrast with the latest shooting or factory closing or overseas conflict and we're all over it. People helping their neighbors, rescuing stray pets, overcoming obstacles, exceeding expectations — we love that stuff. Nothing beats a story that affirms the basic goodness of human nature.
This is not one of those stories.
Sad to say, this is a tale without a happy ending, wherein one's most cynical assumptions about humanity's basic flawed-ness are proven all too true. Trust no one, assume everyone is out to rip you off, and you won't be disappointed. At best, this is a brief tale of disappointment, of a fella too lazy or uncaring to keep his word. At worst, it's a deliberate scam (albeit a ridiculously minuscule one) or even what an old-school crook might call "casing the joint."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's what happened — you tell me what was really going on.
One Friday morning, with Desert Exposure mostly put to bed, we were indulging in one of the pleasures afforded the self-employed and lounging around still in our pajamas, reading the papers on our iPads. (Before you get too envious, keep in mind that the self-employed also get to work plenty of nights and weekends.) It was a little before nine, quiet in the house, and we certainly weren't expecting visitors. So when the doorbell rang, we jumped. Who the heck?
I managed to outwait my wife for the chore of going to the door. There, she was greeted by a man in his 30s (she guessed) who explained in a rush that he'd run out of gas. (She couldn't actually see his car, but our house is downhill from the road, so it could have been just out of sight. Or — he seemed a bit out of breath — he could have walked, as ours would have been the first house he'd come to for a long block or so.) He asked if her husband was available and if we had a can with any gas in it.
I was of course available, if not exactly dressed for scrounging in the garage. But as regular readers know, machinery and its accouterments fall solidly under my wife's jurisdiction. The power tools are hers, and she's the one who knows how to operate the trimmer with which we occasionally whack down the weeds to reduce the fire danger to our house. That trimmer did indeed have a red plastic can of slightly aged gasoline sitting beside it in the garage.
So it was my wife, not I, who went through the house and came out the garage, gas can in hand, to play Good Samaritan. She told him to use the gas and then just leave the can outside the house when he was done.
No, no, the stranded motorist insisted. He would take our can to the gas station — there's one about a mile and a half from our house — and refill it, then drop it back at our house. My wife told him that wasn't necessary, but he was quite insistent. Finally, promises still flowing from his lips, he walked off with the gas can.
We like to think of ourselves as nice people without being suckers, but it's true that the line between trusting and gullible is a thin one, easily crossed by strangers lacking a moral compass. We had been taken advantage of in another Good Samaritan situation, more blatantly and obviously expensively, some years back when we lived in Cincinnati. As the morning of the stranded motorist wore on with no sign of his return, my thoughts went back to that Cincinnati incident I'd almost forgotten.
As I recall, it was also a morning — in this case, before we both left for work (having not yet joined the pajama-clad ranks of the self-employed). We lived in a big, creaky turn-of-the-century (the previous century, that is) Victorian house in a nice neighborhood that was nonetheless uncomfortably close to a not-so-nice neighborhood. The doorbell rang unexpectedly, sending our dog of the time into a paroxysm of barking.
While one of us restrained our corgi, the other (I've forgotten by now who did what) answered the door. (Let me note here the challenge of thinking clear-headedly in the morning, not fully caffeinated, while a dog barks insanely, lest you think us hopelessly naïve as this story unfolds.) The desperate-sounding man on our front porch explained that his daughter was ill and needed immediate medical attention, but his car wouldn't start. Would we lend him $20 (I think it was) for cab fare so he could take her to the doctor?
Our initial, foggy-headed hesitation was overcome by the man's apparent sincerity and his promise to return and pay us back. "Here's the key to my house," he went on, thrusting forward a silver key. "You keep it until I get back."
Now, it's true that he did not volunteer the address of the house to which this key supposedly belonged. But it seemed such an incontrovertible sign of honesty — not to mention desperation — that we exchanged the requested $20 for the key. Surely, we thought, he would return with our money to retrieve his key that very afternoon or early evening, when we came home from work and he'd gotten treatment for his daughter.
Of course, we never saw the "cab fare" or the man again. The bogus key hung on a nail on the inside of our front door from then on, a shiny silver reminder not to be taken in.
Despite this memory, we kept eyeing the front of our house for the reappearance of our gas can — refilled, as promised. When I walked out to the road to check the mailbox, I looked for the gas can; maybe he'd left it by the street, so not to disturb us again. As Friday wore on, we reasoned that he'd been on his way to work, so he likely couldn't return until day's end. Or, we told ourselves as night fell, the next day, Saturday. Or perhaps Monday morning, on his way to work again….
It's been a week now, and we've given up glancing out the front windows in hopes of spotting a cheery red gas can, filled with fuel and reassurance about the essential goodness of our fellow man. Most likely, we tell ourselves, the stranded motorist forgot where we lived or was simply too lazy and unappreciative to fulfill his fervent promise. Perhaps once he'd filled up his car he could no longer afford extra gas for the can. (But then couldn't he at least have dropped off the empty can?)
If this was a scam and the man hadn't run out of gas at all, it's a peculiar and not very profitable one. He netted a $10 plastic gas can and maybe another $10 worth of fuel — hardly the work of a master criminal. Nor could his ill-gotten gains be readily turned into cash.
Could it be that the whole gasoline thing was merely a ruse, and that the "stranded motorist" rang our doorbell to test whether anyone was home? Was this some new technique for "casing" a house prior to burglarizing it?
I even called the sheriff's department to inquire whether they'd had any similar reports, but the deputy whose answering machine I was directed to never got back to me.
I felt a little better after a Google search for "gas can scam" and "out of gas casing house" came up dry. Those who prey on the good-hearted and naïve tend to ask for cash, purportedly to spend on refilling an empty tank, not for the slushier currency of actual gasoline (which is indeed highly "liquid," but not in the way drug lords and other miscreants mean). The cab-fare scam we fell for in Cincinnati, however, is still quite popular — complete with "house key" surety.
So we're left to think… what? We were again naïve? We were victimized, albeit in a weirdly minor way? Our morning visitor was simply an ingrate?
We have no "house key" to remind us next time to be more hard-headed and hard-hearted. But I am posting the Grant County Dispatch phone number by the door, just in case. The next time, if there is one, some stranger rings our bell with a plea for help, we'll volunteer to call the sheriff to come assist. We'll see how that plays out.
In the meantime, who knows? Maybe a red gas can, sloshing with the goodness of humankind, will still show up on our doorstep.
Then, however belatedly, this could be one of those feel-good stories instead.
David A. Fryxell tries not to be too cynical as editor of Desert Exposure.