By Chris Kratsch
When I was in college I was poor. So poor, in fact, that I often found myself out of food. One day I spent my last two dollars on four loaves of bread, and didn’t know where my next meal would come from once those were gone.
I decided to call my mother. She had said she couldn’t afford to send me anything the last time I spoke to her, but I thought perhaps her mother could spare twenty bucks.
There was a pay phone in a nearby campus building. My bread and I headed over there. I called my mother collect, but before I could explain that I wasn’t asking her for money, she became very upset and hung up. I called my father to see if he could explain things to my mother. Then I noticed someone else waiting behind me for the phone.
This man was probably a teacher between classes. My father put me on hold to call my mother on the other line, and I leaned my forehead against the cool concrete brick wall. I could feel the frustration and hopelessness building up inside me.
The man spoke: “Other people have to use the phone, too, you know.”
That was enough to put me over the edge. I turned to this stranger and yelled, “See this bag on the floor? That has all my food in it! I don’t have a phone at home to call from! I’m sorry if your cell phone is broken, but whatever call you have to make is less important than my trying to come up with tomorrow’s meal!”
I turned back to the wall and tried to choke back the tears brought on by my speaking my plight aloud. Very shortly, I realized that I shouldn’t have taken my frustrations out on this person. My father came back to the phone, and I told him I’d call him back. Putting myself back together as well as I could, I hung up the phone.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I shouldn’t have done that. You can use the phone.” I stepped back to sit in a window ledge where I could hide my very obvious emotional state, and cried.
I wasn’t paying attention to the man anymore, but he must have finished his phone call quickly enough. His hand tapped my shoulder and I turned. He put a five dollar bill in my hand and said, “Give this to someone else when they need it.” He walked away, neither asking for gratitude nor giving pity.
There could have been no better delivery, and no better gift! Five dollars could last me a week in those days. Somehow this man knew exactly what to say to allow both of us to go through the rest of the day with dignity.
That was many years ago, and I have repaid that gift a hundred fold by now, always delivering it with the same dignity that was afforded me.