My wife and a trash-picker taught me something about kindness and gratitude

Mike Scanlon | Rio Grande Digital

It’s a moment that bears little significance in the history of human transaction, but it’s something that has stayed with me over the decades and something I feel — 30-some years later — might be worth blogging about.

The mirror.

The mirror.

It relates to a small round mirror about 4 inches in diameter, decorated with a frame of dark wooden beads. For years, it has occupied a prominent place in our home, now on the wall of our bedroom beside the bathroom door. We often admire it. We seldom talk about it. On one or two occasions, we’ve told close friends the story behind it.

Here’s the story.

Roxanne and I, when we first got together, were struggling financially. We both worked two jobs. We were recovering from a business venture that didn’t work, and we owed about a year’s pay to a banker, a supplier and a couple of others. Neither of us had finished college yet. We took the work we could get.

It was the early 1980s, and Roxanne miraculously found a house to rent on the fringes of downtown Las Cruces for $125 a month. The elderly woman who owned the house probably didn’t understand market value, we figured. So we were happy to keep the yard clean and make repairs, hoping to keep her satisfied with the arrangement. The cheap rent allowed us to use more of our money to pay off the debts. Significantly, those were my debts, not Roxanne’s.

As bleak as those days had been, we sometimes joked, we weren’t in as bad a predicament as the old man in the alley. A couple of times a week, we’d see him pushing a shopping cart along the ruts from barrel to bin, picking out discarded aluminum cans and anything else he must have thought had value. He seemed oddly business-like in his pursuit of the neighborhood’s cast-off whatevers. Our trash must have been disappointing.

On occasion, if she was outside, Roxanne would go to the back gate and exchange greetings and small talk with him. She said he was polite, surprisingly well-spoken. And very old. We imagined him living in one of the converted garages or small efficiency apartments that are so numerous but seldom visible from the street in the old Alameda Depot neighborhood of Las Cruces. Or maybe he lived on the other side of downtown in the Mesquite Street district. We never knew.

In time, we were able to quit our second jobs, and I even started finding “extra money” in my pocket. My top priority that cold and windy January was to buy Roxanne a new coat. It would replace the hideous black faux-leather ragged vinyl coat she’d been wearing the last couple of winters. I hated that coat. It symbolized the dark times we finally were putting behind us. It simply wasn’t good enough for her. So I found a nice coat and put it on layaway, paying it off over the next four weeks.

Roxanne was delighted when I brought the coat home and gave it to her. But when I triumphantly picked up the tattered black vinyl coat and dropped it into the kitchen trash can, she promptly retrieved it. She brushed off whatever had stuck to it in the trash and put it on a hanger. She carried it outside and hung it on the back gate — beside our trash can. By that evening, it was gone.

Days later, we were eating breakfast when we heard the clank-clank of the shopping cart in the alley ruts. Roxanne got up and looked out the window.

“He’s wearing my coat.” She watched him as he made his rounds, finally disappearing behind the neighbor’s fence. “Hey, there’s something on the gate.”

When she came back in, she was holding the mirror. She looked bewildered. I don’t think either of us said anything for the next few minutes. We knew this must have been one of the greatest treasures he’d ever found. And now, he’d given it to Roxanne. We were humbled.

We only saw the old man a few more times after that. A couple of times, he waved and said hello when we were outside. There was never a conversation or mention of the coat or the mirror.

And that was it. A simple act of kindness met with an unexpected act of gratitude. A bright spot at the end of a long, dark tunnel. And all the mirror metaphors you can think of to remind us every day about the most wonderful parts of being human.






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