The bigger picture

Special thanks to guest writer and lifelong friend, Mark Egan, for today’s post.

I’ve driven to St. Mary’s, Kansas, and found a diner by the name of “Froggy’s.” It came highly recommended by the young lady at the gas station next door. I’d somehow driven past it looking for a restroom and some food.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling being the guy that doesn’t seem to fit, being a stranger among friends, but it is peaceful here. I’m sitting in a booth with a north-facing window. It’s beautiful out. Nothing is green yet, but the weather feels like everything should be. The leafless trees out the window and across the street reveal large five-story stone buildings. The stone and architecture predate 1900. There are hints of Catholicism both on the buildings and on a few front porches on Main Street as I pass through town.

The waitress is stunning. Her make-up and hair look like they may have taken longer to prepare than it took me to drive here. She is young. Her earrings at a glance seem too big and dangle to her shoulders; another glance, and they kind of resemble the leaves that are missing from the trees. At the risk of getting caught staring, I look again and it’s clear–they are angel’s wings.

I’d love to make a sarcastic comment or two about this little town in the middle of nowhere, but the environment simply makes it impossible to do anything other than take turns staring first at the old stone Catholic-inspired buildings and then at the angelic face of my waitress framed appropriately in wings. She smiles at me, probably because I stick out like an anomaly in an environment that knows only consistency.

I’m here because I have time. I have time because an older man and his wife asked me to look at their home for them. I agreed to do so before learning of their remote location. I came here rather than calling and giving them the bad news that to perform any sort of work this far away stretches the limit on the accuracy of my verbal estimate. The cost incurred in lost productivity and the value of the traditional margin of profit that is mentally allocated to cover future warranty issues isn’t sufficient. In short; from a purely business standpoint, I need to pass on even the opportunity to earn his business.

So against better judgment, I honor my word and drive out. It takes nearly three hours. The pavement turns into gravel, my navigation still adamant that I have another 10 minutes of drive time. Driving a rattling Ford Focus down a path better suited for tractors is my reality today.

I arrive to see a fairly nice farm home and a few barns and sheds scattered around in no particular order. The memories of our conversation come rushing back as soon as he greets me and exposes his teeth. He has unmistakable gold fillings and a matching gold cap on one of his front teeth, not at all in an offensive way, just memorable. I remember his wife’s excitement at the idea of having the home’s drainage and water problems addressed.

Today that excitement is gone. His body language isn’t speaking so much as it is yelling. He walks with intent and stands rigid in defiance. This is the same man, but not at all the gracious individual seeking knowledge and help who I met two short weeks ago. He seems nervous under a thick skin of “Kansas farmer toughness.”

“Lets take a look,” I say out of habit, still soaking in his stiffness.

“All I want to know is how much?” he replies curtly.

I know this environment, I know why it took just a little too long for someone to greet me, and I know why she stayed inside. I know why he is nervous, and more importantly, I know that I just wasted a beautiful morning.

In my mind, the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” wants to come pouring out of my mouth. I could have slept in. I could have read. I could have done anything, or nothing, but here I am.

Normally I would try to earn his respect, then his trust, and ultimately his business. In this case, I would be faced with an uphill battle, and in the slim chance that he wanted to hire me, I’d still have the future burden of potential gasoline consuming warranty issues and unexpected problems coupled with a margin too thin to assume the risk.

“It’s going to run you $15 to $17 per foot, same as I told you before I made this drive,” I reply, obviously irritated.

“That’s too much,” he says, stuffing his hands in his pockets to solidify his point.

“Than why are we standing here? It’s beautiful out; your time is valuable, as is mine,” I respond without much thought.

I was about to tell him that it is okay to tell someone like me that you don’t want them to drive out to your home because (I assure you) he doesn’t want to if there is nothing to be gained by it. This is a job and not a normal job–not a normal job that pays hourly, but a job that pays only if the customers decide to hire you. I choose not to say anything, though, and just extend my hand toward his and wish him well.

He asks me if we could do regular seamless guttering, and if so, how much. His barn to the left of the driveway had new guttering installed recently, he points out, an obvious attempt at proving his point. If I am higher than the other guy who hung his guttering, then clearly that is evidence that in the free market economy, I cannot compete in any other function. So I lie. I tell him it was $3.50 per foot rather than the $5.50 it would actually cost, knowing that I couldn’t possibly come out here and hang guttering. Oddly his point was still relevant. He had paid another man $2.00 per foot. The old cliche “you get what you pay for” bounces around with my other thoughts of general irritation.

As nicely as possible, I tell him that he got a great deal and to give that guy a call in the future if he needs any help. He responds victoriously, “Same guy did the house a few years back.”

I nod in an attempt to send some signal of agreement in hopes this can all just end. I turn from the porch and head to the car. I look up at the guttering out of habit as I walk by. It was probably one of the most poorly installed guttering systems I’d ever seen. I’ll spare you the details, but his house is being destroyed behind a very deceptive layer of vinyl that will hide the destruction until his problems will carry a financial burden that will make him want to drive his John Deere off a bridge.

I smile to myself with some sort of evil satisfaction. It’s actually difficult to accept that I truly gain a fair amount of pleasure from this man’s not yet materialized but inevitable misery. I want to turn around. I want to yell, “Look! Look at what you are doing to your home that you are so proud of–you’re right! Someone somewhere will do exactly what you ask of them, and they’ll do it cheaply, but you have no idea what to do and neither does whomever you’re convincing to do the work. Your frugality is only exceeded by your ignorance!”

But I don’t turn around. I don’t say another word. There is nothing to be gained. I drive off, taking a left out of his driveway, choosing a different path to the paved street, hoping for a less destructive and more comfortable drive. It was worse.

That is how I have arrived here. I’m frustrated, and my mind is full of 15 years’ worth of decisions that led me here. I think about the financial and housing boom that propped me up from relative poverty to a life I dreamed of but didn’t dare expect. The stress, the risks, and the countless hours were all somehow justified as a fair trade for this life. The memories are all cut short and replaced with the next, like skipping through songs without the patience to let one finish. My cell phone beeps at me, reminding me of my next appointment. For some reason, it also reminds me of a message I regularly received a few short years ago—“Your pool is good,” it said. I don’t remember the man’s name or the company. He was always a gentlemen. I fear that maybe I never really knew his name at all.

My mind is treating it all like a child’s dot-to-dot game. Each dot by itself has no value, but a line drawn to connect them all in the right order reveals a clear picture. My stubborn golden-toothed Kansas farmer, my peaceful and reverent view, my nearly inexplicable past, and of course, my angel, are today’s dots.

The picture my environment draws is one of compassion. It is through much gain followed by loss that I have, for the first time in my life, an understanding of what surrounds me. My life is no longer one of a parasite, existing lavishly on the backs of others. Instead, I am reminded who I once was, and that human nature left unguided will lure me down a similar path again. So what guides human nature? Nothing more than the environment you place yourself in. Today my environment is one of goodness, and my expectations of myself are equally such. I picture the old farmer, and in this moment, I see him as I see my father–hard-working, exceptional, and rightly skeptical about trusting me.

I’ll mail him a few notes on the problems he is having and how to correct them before they worsen. I can’t imagine I’ll ever return to this spot, but if I do, I’ll take the time to walk around and appreciate those old buildings. and maybe I’ll tell her she is beautiful rather than “thanks for the sandwich.”

-Mark Egan

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