The Good Man – Bad Man Continuum
December 12th, 2011

I was about finished handing over my donations when he rode up on his bicycle.  His coat was brown oilcloth, worn with the collar turned up, and didn’t look to be very warm.  Behind his bike was a cart of sorts – homemade out of plywood and fastened to a single axle attached to two tires repurposed from a jogging stroller.

I waited for the Goodwill guy to get my receipt while this man got off his bike and walked up with the first of three large cardboard boxes.  Each one was literally overflowing with children’s clothes.  I saw snap-crotch onesies, tiny pink tops, pants, and dresses.  I was on my way to the gym and felt liberated being out of the house for a bit.  I decided to make some small talk and commented that it’s amazing how quickly kids outgrow clothes.

“Yes,” he said.  ”Some of them are practically disposable.  They wear them once and then they don’t fit anymore.”

As he responded he walked back to his bicycle cart to collect the second box.  I followed him with my eyes, and only as I watched him pick up the next box did I notice a tiny little girl in the cart as well.  She was somewhere between 18 months and two years old.  Her skin was fair, but pink from the chilly December air.  Her eyes were bright.  And her coat was much too big and gapped around her neck.  She didn’t have on a hat or gloves.

“Well hello, little one!” I said.  She  smiled broadly yet bashfully.   “It’s a cold one today.  Are you staying warm?”  She didn’t look like she was.  I scrambled to think whether or not any of IEP’s many winter hats might have been left in the car that I might give to her.  None had.

“Yeah, how’s your brother’s coat working out for you?” her father added, as if to imply an explanation as to why it didn’t fit her.

The father and I wrapped up our cliched conversation about how quickly kids grow and I got back into my car.  The outside temperature on the dashboard read 36 degrees.

As I waited to turn left at the light just outside of the Goodwill parking lot I saw the man cross the intersection on his bike and turn right.  As he did his little girl struggled to keep herself upright in the cart behind him.  And for the rest of the day I thought a complicated mix of conflicting thoughts about this encounter.

A man who clearly did not have a proper winter coat, or a hat, or a car was donating dozens upon dozens of articles of children’s clothing.  Presumably he no longer had use for them and wanted to see that someone else – someone who had even less than he? – could used them.  At the same time, this man dragged a tiny child out on a very cold day without proper protection against the winter weather.  He rode his bike in traffic while his daughter sat loose in the back, unbuckled and without any kind of helmet.

What kind of man was this?  A good man?  A man who thinks about those less fortunate even when he himself seems to have so little?  Or was he a careless and irresponsible parent?  Someone who jeopardizes his daughter’s health and safety to do something which, while admittedly good, was not at all urgent.  Couldn’t he have waited until a warmer day, or a day when his wife or a friend or neighbor was available to watch his daughter?

All of the above?  Is that the answer?  Like anyone else in the world I am prompted to say, “Yes, and…”

We never really know all of another person’s story.  We know only what we see in many cases.  We know what we are told in others.  But we are almost always left to fill in some of the blanks with our own suppositions.  I believe in most cases the answers to those blanks are clouded with nuance.  They are the places where the answers aren’t clear and we are forced to confront both the triumphs and the failings of the people around us.

The man I saw at the Goodwill drop-off door last week is just like most of us in many ways.  His circumstances may be vastly different from yours or mine.  But he exists on a continuum just like anyone else.  He has some very admirable qualities.  And he also makes mistakes and imperfect choices.   Is he a good man or a bad man?  He is a little of both, just like everyone else.

One Response to “The Good Man – Bad Man Continuum”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    This reminds me of a scene I see here (Phnom Penh) on a daily basis. Women pulling metal carts collecting recyclable trash, like soda cans, cardboard boxes, plastic, around town. Perched on top of the heap is an under 5 yr old with unkempt hair and tattered clothes sometimes sleeping and sometimes just taking in the views while mom does her work. The range of thoughts and questions that go through my head – from pity to disgust – never go answered.

    We never know the full story. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are making the best possible decision given their circumstances, no matter how much fault I find with it.