My friend Janet wrote recently about "exercising the friendship muscle," and the phrase stuck in my mind. Today, I embraced it to exercise what I called the "decency muscle," and it seemed a large step forward to me, even though it was confusing in some ways.
I think I am thinking differently about the way I wish to live in the world. Some people say we get too old to change, I say we get old enough to change, if we are lucky.
The gas cap on the side of the car got wobbly recently, it won't close properly. I couldn't fix it – I can't fix anything – and I thought it would fall off soon.
I drove to Rishinki's garage in Cambridge where I take my car for service and I asked them to take a look at it. Charlie, the thoughtful and kind mechanic who works on my car, came out to look at it. He got on the ground a few times, screwed something in, hammered something else, oiled something else, advised me that they do not make car parts as solidly as they once die, and after some more banging and twisting, the cap was on tightly and worked perfectly.
He got up off the ground, told me it was fine and started to head back into the garage.
Something pulled at me. "Excuse me," I said, "can I pay for this, it took you awhile and needed some work." He waved me off at first, and said it was no big deal, don't worry about it, but I felt I needed to insist.
"If you want to," he said, smiling. He wouldn't say no.
I went into the office and was charged $13. I got a receipt and felt good. Charlie didn't ask to be paid, but I felt a pull in my stomach at the thought of driving off without paying. I thought that he needed to be paid, and deserved to be paid. Rather than exult in my free repair I realized I felt better paying him for his work than getting the work for free. I have some experience in not being paid for my work and it felt good to pay the $13.
I asked Charlie about the peeling paint on the front fender of my SUV. It wasn't a serious mechanical problem, but it was ugly and he worried about rust. He said he would repair if if it was his car, he knew I wanted to keep mind forever.
I ought to get it looked at, he said, but it had to go to an auto body shop. He recommended Performance Auto Body where I took the car to be fixed each of the two times in recent years when it collided with a deer. They do very good work there, and are nice as well.
I had some time, and I hate to put off chores, I know they will never get done, so I drove down Route 22 to Performance Auto. They remembered me there, I saw they were big dog lovers and gave them a book in appreciation for the way they fixed my car and treated me. Maria and I started dating in that car, we have been all over the country in it, on book tours and our mini-vacations, and I love it and want to drive it until one of us expires.
At the auto body shop, the woman in the office – I don't know her name – came out to look at it.
She checked the records. She told me the primer used to paint the new fender after the deer collusion was defective, and a number of people had brought their cars and trucks in to have the paint repaired.
She took full responsibility for the peeling, and said they would fix it with no charge. The company that sold them the faulty paint would not honor any work done two years ago, it was all on them and they would pay for it.
I sensed this had been a drain on them, but they were not running from it or complaining about it. I liked her honesty and directness. She said it would take two days to repair, sometimes the fender had to be taken off and painted and then put back on. It would take some time.
I thanked her, I was pleasantly surprised, I never connected the peeling to the deer accident and I was prepared to have a large bill for this work. As I opened the door, I felt a pull in my stomach. It was something I felt in my heart, inside, not in my head. I didn't think about it, I just did it.
I turned and went back to the desk. "This doesn't feel right to me," I said. "I ought to pay something for this." She looked a bit surprised. "You don't have to, but if you want to help…" She didn't have to say it. She wouldn't say no.
We agreed that if the bill was not large, I would pay it, if it was large, we would split it. In any case, I said, you shouldn't have to pay all of it. We'll work it out.
She said sure, and I am bringing the car back in November, after we get back from New Mexico. I am glad I didn't dance out of the place, happy to be off the hook for the repairs. I don't wish to be taken advantage of, or behave foolishly. It just didn't seem right to me that these people – honest and hard-working – should bear the full responsibility for something that wasn't their fault, and that they owned up to right away.
I live in a small town, we know people here, we see one another as human beings, not as entities we can resent and complain about. They took good care of me when my car was all bashed up, and I want to take care of them insofar as I can, it seems only fair to me. That is what community is, putting yourself in the shoes of the other. We know each other, these are not corporate behemoths with faux support.
I will never be intimate buddies with the people at the auto body shop, I may never even see them again, I hope I don't, really, I don't want to hit any more deer.
But I like the feeling in my heart when I flex the muscles of decency. I am glad I didn't cackle and gloat at their distress and my good fortune. I didn't want to call Maria up and say, "hey great news, there's no charge for the fender repair." I felt good about this afternoon, doing the right thing feels better than being angry or callous or selfish.
Yet this felt a little strange to me also. Was I being foolish? Co-dependent? Being nice to another at my own expense. It was their fault, not mine, wasn't I justified in expecting them to pay for it?
I just don't think so, it didn't feel right to me, and i have learned to listen to my own instincts.
It feels good to flex the muscles of decency and compassion. We live in a world of argument, resentment and lament. I don't want to live in that world. I am not rich, I am not a big shot, I am not delusional about money, not any more.
I like the way this afternoon went, I thought I didn't have much to do, but it turns out that I did.