a simple story

by Toni McGee Causey

I want to tell you a simple story. It’s short. Easy. Not a lot of razzmatazz.

Yesterday, down in New Orleans, there was a contractor on a fairly big job, trying to do an “extra” for the people at no charge. That’s just his personality. His outlook on life. There was a road an electrician had had to dig a trench across to lay a line, and he wasn’t going to get the road repaired in time for something important next week. The contractor offered to fix it, assuming he’d only be able to pour the concrete on Monday. As luck and several benvolent actions on others’ part happened, he was, in fact, able to pour the concrete on Saturday… but his tools and crews were already off on another location, too far away to call back. He decided to run over to one of the supply stores, buy what he needed. He could have waited ’til Monday, but he knew they needed the road, and what the hell, it was a good deed.

Off he went to the big box supply store to buy the concrete finishing tools, tools he’d normally have most any other day in the back of his own truck, when he happened to see an old man and his assistant on the side of the road, finishing up a piece of concrete, a driveway, I believe, for someone else. Traffic was horrible and at the rate he was moving, he wasn’t going to get to the store and back to the jobsite before the concrete showed up. He stopped to see if the man was about finished, and offered him the little job. It was a tiny thing, and the man said sure… then he realized he wasn’t going to be there in time. So the old man–who had never met the contractor before–said, “Hey, why don’t you just borrow my extra tools? I don’t need ’em right now.” And the contractor thanked him. The old man loaded up the tools in the back of the contractor’s truck and waved goodbye, never having asked the contractor his name or his number or gotten the first piece of information in order to retrieve his tools, should they miss each other later that day. The contractor drove a plain white truck–no company name or anything identifying on it anywhere.

The contractor was able to get back to the job before the concrete arrived, and he finished the concrete with the borrowed tools. Everyone was happy. He returned to find the old man, and when he gave the man back his tools, he gave him money for “rental” for them. The old man’s assistant had been horrified at the old man for loaning his tools to a perfect stranger without getting his information, and the old man had told him, “I wasn’t using them, and I did the right thing. If he doesn’t return them, then I still did the right thing.”

Now, that old man didn’t look like he had much in the world, but he made the contractor’s day much easier. As it so happened, because the contractor had had to return the tools, he was driving home from a different direction, and at a much different time of day than he normally would. He saw a man on a long bridge span walking away from his truck, carrying a container, obviously out of gas. It was twenty-five miles across that long bridge span until the next exit where there was a gas station, so the contractor pulled over and offered the man a ride.

It turned out that the man was desperately out of work, here from North Carolina. When the contractor asked him what he did, the man told him he “cleaned up after rod busters,” and he said it with a shit-eatin’ grin. For those who don’t know, that means he finishes concrete, and was damned proud of his profession. He also happened to be able to run heavy equipment and had a lot of construction experience. What he didn’t know–couldn’t have known–was that the contractor had been advertising for just such an employee for over a month, and was getting in a bind on the big job because applicant after applicant had flaked out. They’d call, claim to want the job, get the offer… and simply never show up. The pay scale was commensurate with the norm, the benefits were above the norm, the location was clear in the ad… but flake they did, even in this economy.

The man had no idea he was in the middle of a job interview for that first 25 miles. They stopped at the gas station, and the contractor filled up three gas containers, and then drove all the way around to bring the man back to his truck. He learned in that process that the man had a sweet mom back in North Carolina who had moved in his home and was paying half his mortgage and he was trying hard not to lose his house. He’d been working day jobs when he could, and had been trying to find something permanent. He was down to his last eleven dollars, had been sleeping in his truck and hadn’t eaten in a while. The contractor had some food in the truck and gave it to him. The man ate rather quickly, but saved the last two bites in case the contractor wanted it. (You can tell the quality of a man when he’s starving, and will still share what little he has, with someone who obviously has more.)

When they got back to the truck, the contractor offered him a job. In the next few minutes, the contractor dug out a spare pre-paid phone he carried around for emergencies (in case his broke), gave it to the man, gave him his phone number, and organized a place for the man to stay for a week, paid, with a little money extra for food and a ride back to the job Monday morning. When he told me the story, he said, “I think he’ll be a good worker. He certainly was grateful. But if he isn’t, or if he doesn’t show up, I still did the right thing.”

Just like the old man. The cost ratio was about the same–both men just reaching out to his neighbor.

No politics. No notion of who the other people were, whether they were “worth” the effort or not. Just looking around their world, and noticing someone in need, and realizing they had a way to help that person.

The old man changed the contractor’s day. The contractor changed the new employee’s life (he said, as he called to thank the contractor, sincerely grateful). Who knows how it’ll all work out.

A long time ago, when that contractor was young and he didn’t have much money, someone had called him to help out a young man who had come in for counseling. That young man had been in the armed forces, had been honorably discharged, but when he got home, he’d had a run of really bad luck: someone he loved left him, his hoped-for job back home dried up, and so on. He had hit a low so low that he’d sought help, and it was that counselor who’d called the young contractor and asked if he could give the young man a job for a day. The young contractor did, and in the process, learned a bit about the man’s bad luck. He had a car he desperately needed to sell. The contractor happened to know someone looking for a car in that price range, so the sale was set up. There was a problem with the title, but the contractor knew a notary who knew how to fix it, so off they went, taking work time, to go fix that issue. With the money in hand, and a couple of other smaller things sold (the contractor talks to a lot of people, and helped the veteran sell his stuff), the veteran was able to get back to his home state, where his family was, and, after doing so, called the contractor a few weeks later to thank him.

He’d been going to kill himself that night, the day the contractor had given him that one job for the day, he said. He’d given up. He’d only taken the job because the counselor had urged him to, and since he had “bothered” the counselor with his problems, he felt he should honor the effort the counselor had made on his behalf, but the veteran knew that wages from one day–maybe $30–wasn’t going to fix his problems. Now, though, he was home, he had a new job, and things were going well.

It didn’t take money–the young contractor, back then, was fairly broke himself. It just took caring enough to look around and notice the people who were trying to help themselves, but having little luck. It took time. It wasn’t convenient, but he did the right thing, never really knowing if it would work. If you were to ask him, he’d be embarrassed that I wrote this story about him. He’d just tell you that people had reached out to help him at times when he’d desperately needed it. It was just the right thing to do. He tries to live up to that.

There was a horrible tragedy, yesterday, in Arizona. Our hearts and prayers are with all of the victims and the families and friends. What is sad, though–in addition to the heartbreak of the event–is that there was an immediate load of vitriol on both sides of the political aisles. I refuse to believe that we’re not capable of really looking around and seeing each other as worthwhile. It doesn’t matter what we all believe. It matters that we’re all in this together. I can’t help but wonder if there had been someone along the way who could have reached out, and noticed that shooter needed help. Or needed to be stopped. Or needed… something.

That counselor didn’t know what would happen, but he reached out. That old man finishing concrete on the side of the road didn’t know what would happen, but he made an offer. The contractor didn’t know what would happen, but he found an employee who could do what he needed done. And a man’s life was changed.

What can you do today? Smile at someone. Offer a hand. Maybe all you have extra is a dollar. Or maybe, all you can do is spend a few minutes, listening to someone. You matter. What you do can change lives. Sure, there are a lot of con artists out there–so we always have to use our good judgment and if we run across a few, chalk it up to their loss and help the next person. There are a lot of people in need, and we all have talents we can share. Sometimes, it may simply be time and effort. Or loaning someone something they need. You just never know how much that one act will ripple out.

I hope we try.



36 thoughts on “a simple story

  1. Debbie

    Toni, that was truely inspired and uplifting. Thank you. Not even two months ago, people I've never met face to face made a world of difference to me when there was no one to turn to, to talk to. Since all I can do is say thank you I will, I had no idea anybody was even paying attention. I will keep reaching out to others, in the hopes that someday I can help too. Thank you. Murderati is more than just a blog, it's a community of people who believe in and support each other.

  2. Shizuka

    This is such a beautiful thing to read early in the New Year.
    You're a great storyteller, Toni. And I'm wondering if the contractor is your husband.

  3. Barbie

    I *love* this post, and I love how we can make such a difference in someone's life without even realizing it sometimes. I try my hardest to be a good person, to be there for people, to smile at strangers on the street, to let a car of out of a parking lot in the middle of a traffic jam. I know that sometimes hurry and annoyance and stress and exhaustion take the best of me, and it's always good to be reminded that we should try just a little bit harder, that little gestures can be really important for someone else. I'm lucky to have had a lot of people who had no obligation help me when I really needed someone, so, I really want to be able to pay it forward 🙂

  4. Grace

    So many times, we miss opportunities for one reason or another: they'll tell me to bugger off, who do I think I am, mind my own business, etc. etc. Thanks for the post. The call to be more open to others can be scary but so rewarding.

  5. Laura Jane Thompson

    I loved this story, Toni. I've always believed that it's the small kindnesses that make a world of difference, and that showing a kindness often creates a ripple effect.

    When it comes to the shooting in Arizona, however, I'm troubled by the reports of the shooter's mental instability and history of disturbing behavior. It's great to reach out to those in need, but we also have to be careful. Not that you can believe the media reports, but if the shooter was as unbalanced as he seems, I'm grateful no well-meaning person reached out to him only to become a prior victim.

    I think the Arizona shooting illustrates the need for civic duty as well as a pay-it-forward mindset. I'd like the believe that if I witnessed potentially dangerous behavior in someone else, I'd immediately report what I'd seen to the appropriate authorities.

  6. Bob K

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! What an amazing post!

    I don't know if the young man in Arizona could have been helped (although I tend to believe that a halping hand at the right moment can change nearly any life) – but we defintiely should focus on the tragedy that occurred.

    Pointing fingers, placing blame, calling names distracts from the magnitude of what happened and does nothing to prevent future similar tragedies.

  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    Thank you, Toni.
    I was online yesterday and came across some of that vitriol. I was shocked because it was from people with whom I'm familiar. My first response and my usual response is to ignore it, not give it any power. I couldn't yesterday, my voice inside wouldn't let me, and despite being nervous that I would lose some online acquaintances, I left message asking them to stop.
    People are good. We are all just humans trying to be the best we can be but sometimes….we take the easy way out and jump on the vitriol bandwagon.
    It is my strongest wish that everyone would step back from whatever situation puts them in the spot and recognize/analyze why they hate, why there is anger, and why they feel they have to contribute to the ugliness instead of pulling from the better part of themselves. I think our culture would be so different if we did. I don't know what has changed in the past 30 years to make it so but it starts with one, the power of one, each of us.
    And I'm nervous just saying this much.

  8. Zoë Sharp


    I'm slow to read the news today, and only just really heard the details of the Tucson shootings. My heart goes out to you and all who have been affected by this tragedy.

  9. billie

    Toni, wonderful story. As I read it, each time the person helping, doing "one little thing" said "no matter the outcome, it's the right thing to do" I felt the power of that statement, and the belief behind it. When we do our "one right thing" in the moment, my personal belief is that we invite synchronicity to step in, and as you say, the one right thing takes on a life of its own and ripples out in ways we can't even imagine.

    When I did clinical supervision for young therapists, they often brought in cases that seemed hopeless – there were so many layers of things to deal with: mental illness, poverty, family dysfunction, lack of services to really give them what they needed. It's hard to sit in the midst of that and know that your one hour of child play therapy a week is making much of a difference. I likened it to a ladder. We could only put our one rung on the ladder, but if we did our job and put that one rung in place, the next person would do the next, and so on until the child was up and out of the mire. We would almost surely never see anything but the run below ours and above ours if we were lucky, but we just had to trust that our one rung was important.

    Your story illustrates that perfectly.

  10. judy wirzberger

    Toni, thanks. I needed the reminder that one person can make a difference and like the Song of St. Francis, "Let it begin with me."

    Love is endless.

  11. Gayle Carline

    Thanks for offering peace in the current sea of chaos and blame, Toni. My old pastor used to say, if you help someone out who is just conning you, it's their sin, not yours. You still did the right thing.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    I needed this today, Toni. The shooting is too close to home in more than one way. I sat and watched the news this morning with my children — both older than the 9 year old girl and old enough to understand what's happened — and couldn't find the words to explain what happened.

    Because I work now with psychiatrists, I'm also acutely aware of how the explanations are being playing in the media — we don't know if this shooter was "crazy," or mentally unbalanced, not yet. What we DO know is that he committed an inexplicable act.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Toni, Toni, Toni…such a beautiful post. I'm trying to be a tough guy, here, and you're making me all teary-eyed. I love the stories you tell.

  14. Laura Lane McNeal

    I loved the post. I'm from New Orleans. A decent honest contractor is hard to find these days. I would love his name!

  15. Rachel Goldsworthy

    Toni, thank you for a beautiful story.
    I'm on the west coast of Canada, weeping along with Cornelia and Stephen.

    I keep my fist firmly clutched to the idea, the sure and certain hope of a Ripple Effect for Good. I know that the tiny, probably often unwitting, acts of others have sometimes had a huge effect on me.

    Here's to the good guys!

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Debbie, I'm so glad that some of us saw that when things were not going well for you; I truly worry about missing Rati members' news — you are all our family, once you join in here. The net is so vast, it's hard to keep track. I hope everyone knows that if they need an ear, we are here and we care.

    Laura Jane, I completely agree. I don't know–or even want to assume–that an act of kindness somewhere along the way would have simply changed that young man. That's probably entirely too much to hope for. Maybe, though, the right person could have been enabled to be in place to stop him. With every crime, we'll always have those "we'll just never know" kinds of guesses. It's heartbreaking.

    Billie, what a wonderful illustration — I hadn't thought of it that way, as just one rung, that's all we can do on our end. Terrific imagery, thank you.

    All of you, thank you for your kind words today. I'm humbled and heartbroken. But, still hopeful that we can continue to make a difference.

  17. lil Gluckstern

    What a wonderful post and such amazing stories. I wish the vitriol would stop too. Yesterday is a reminder that what we say and do has consequences. i was taught early on in therapy training that doing the right thing does not necessarily see immediate results, but it is necessary to do it all the same. What's sad about yesterday is that these were good people, not doing anything in particular, and they were so brutally attacked. Paying it forward it necessary, paying attention is important. Thank you for this.

  18. JD Rhoades

    Thank you, Toni. You always seem, to come up with just what I need to read at the right moment.

  19. Margaret Maron

    Wonderful post, Toni. "Let it begin with me"? Yes! Even if it's just pausing with a long line of cars behind you to let a left-turner turn in the opposite lane turn in front of you and free the lane behind him. Tiny things add up.

  20. Reine

    Toni, this is beautiful, thank you.

    Zoë, thank you. We are still waiting to hear from our neighbors who haven't been home all weekend. We don't know if they are just gone for the weekend or if they went shopping and didn't make it home. They are only releasing the names of the dead, not the injured.

    Pari, thank you so very much. The Internet and wifi connections have been crazy here since yesterday morning. Try Reine <reen.carter@post.harvard.edu> or Reine <reen.carter@gmail.com>.

    Thank you everyone for your well wishes and caring for our community.

  21. JT Ellison

    Well done, Toni. Well done.

    I was horrified by the shooting, and stayed off the Internet after I saw a few truly outrageous comments. Thanks for putting it in perspective.

  22. Reine

    We are OK.
    Thank you, Toni, Pari, Everyone.
    It's hard. All the blame on TV.
    Now the Westboro group coming to picket Christina's funeral.
    It's good to have the Rati here.
    I feel myself getting quiet.
    Crying won't stop.

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