The one lesson that has always stuck with me after being a meter reader is that poor people are more likely to be generous than people who have money. Reading meters in a well to do neighborhood guaranteed you weren’t going to see anyone outside and if you did, they’d pretend you didn’t exist. Asking someone to move their $50,000.00 dollar car off the top the meter lid was like asking those people to donate their liver. You got a lot of the “It’s my *&^%$# car and my #$%^& yard and you can go &^%$ yourself” which meant they would get a water bill for three thousand dollars next month. Oops! Sorry!
One guy had a “preferred path” that I use to read his meter. I was to walk up the driveway, make a sharp right turn, walk to the meter, and then retrace my steps. “There’s no sense in you walking across my lawn every damn month.” I nodded politely and enter an astronomical water bill for next month. I also vowed to bring a pint bottle of herbicide with me next trip in.
During a violent thunderstorm in the most desolate parts of Valdosta, a man motioned for me to take shelter in his garage. He was trying to repair his lawnmower, and it looked older than I was at the time. Some poor people had neat houses and nice lawns, too, but they weren’t jerks about it. This guy and I stood and watched the storm for about thirty minutes. His wife made me a ham sandwich and gave me a Coke. He worked as a forklift operator and she was a teacher’s aide. That sandwich and Coke represented a significant portion of their income. But it also was a damn decent thing to do, to take someone in during a storm, and that’s the kind of people they were.
Two months later I was running the same route when I saw the black ribbon on their door. The man or his wife, or maybe a child, had died. The yard looked the same and their tiny house was still immaculate, but someone was gone now. I wanted to knock on the door and ask but I’ve always been wary about intruding on people, at least in person.
After I started writing this, I drove around that neighborhood when I got off work on Tuesday. That storm hit back in 1988, and even though I was pretty sure I remembered where the house was, so much has changed. I remember the front porch had steps going off to one side, and the garage had this weird speed bump right in front of it. I’m guessing to let the driver know where the garage was but who knows? Damn, there it is.
I left a six pack of Cokes on the porch, and I have no idea if the same family lives there, or their kids, or maybe someone who never knew them. It really doesn’t matter, does it? But I would like to think their son or their daughter, or someone who remembers them will find the offering and in some way know, their kindness still lived.