By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, May 4, 1940.
“How you have the nerve,” protested Jimmie Frise, “to pass all these poor guys along the side of the road!”
“I only give lifts to men in uniform,” I stated.
“How do you know some of them aren’t heading some place to try to enlist?” demanded Jim.
“Maybe so,” I said. “But in this open car, anybody in the back seat gets their head blown off.”
“You’ve always got an excuse,” said Jimmie. “In times like these, you don’t know who might be passing on the highway.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Burglars. Carriers of typhoid. Guys with fleas.”
“The Scotch have a legend,” said Jim, “about the Gray Man. You will be walking along the road and meet a man all in gray. He will wait for you to speak to him. He is a messenger of Fate. If you treat him kindly, your fate will be different. If you treat him meanly, something terrible will happen to you. I often pick people up on the road just because they might be messengers of Fate. I do it for luck.”
“That’s all very well,” I countered, “if you are going along the highway on a journey. But we’re only going home to lunch. Why stop and pick somebody up for only a dozen blocks?”
“Okay,” said Jim. “We’re going home in your car. But we are coming back from lunch in my car. You see whether I pass anybody on the road.”
“Yours is a much nobler nature than mine,” I scorned. “And besides, yours is a closed car.”
We were going home for lunch for two reasons. First: we had decided, all of a sudden, to take the afternoon off and visit a trout pond a friend had invited us to, not 40 miles from the city. Second: to get Jimmie’s car, since it threatened rain.
“All I say is,” concluded Jimmie, who knows how much I like to have the last word, “It is little trouble to stop your car and give some poor guy a lift. You never know what kindness you might be doing.”
And there on the roadside ahead stood a figure that appealed even to me. He was a young man in rough working country clothes. He carried a pack. He was standing ruggedly out from the curb, thumbing in a strong, energetic fashion. But what made him different from most roadside thumbers was the grin on his face.
He fairly glowed with good-will and friendly expectancy. If there is anything I hate is to see a hitch-hiker thumb furiously at a car; and after the car passes, to see him glower, his mouth twisted in profane imprecations. But this lad was different. Two cars ahead of us whizzed by him. The broad grin on his face, the glow, did not fade. He shook his head good-humoredly and, with an extra flourish, hoisted his whole arm in a rollicking gesture, his homely thumb waggling, his eyes wide and eager, his face flushed with a sort of joy. And I noted his clothes were almost bleached they were so clean.
Naturally, I stamped on the brakes, and Jim muttered, “Attaboy.”
“Thank YOU,” cried the young man, scrambling for the side door and hoisting his pack in. “This is awful kind of you, sir.”
“How far are you going?” I inquired.
“Well, sir,” beamed the young man jovially, “I’m trying to get to the Tobacco Country. That’s down towards Windsor. But every little bit helps, even if you’re only going to the edge of the city.”
Exceptional Young Man
I let the clutch in and started. But drove slow, because it is hard to hear conversation in an open car.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I’m not even going to the edge of the city. I’m only going to High Park and then turn north. But since you have so far to go, I’ll gladly run you out as far as the Humber. You can catch lots of cars going west from there.”
“Oh, no, no, sir,” bellowed the young man, and he sat forward so as to talk in our ears. “No, no, sir. Don’t do that, please. I’ll get on, no matter where you drop me. Every little bit helps.”
“Not atall, not atall,” I assured him heartily.
“Please don’t go out of your way, sir,” insisted the young man. “It would spoil the grand feeling I have. I’ve had nothing but the greatest luck ever since I left hospital. I feel so good towards everybody. It would spoil it if I thought I took anybody out of their way.”
Jim nudged me. I nudged Jim.
“Where were you in hospital?” I inquired.
“Montreal, sir,” said the lad. “I was unemployed and couldn’t get no money or no job and I was that weak. And I got hurt in a street accident. I guess it was my own fault. But I was so sick and weak, I couldn’t jump lively enough, I guess …”
“Poor fellow,” I sympathized.
“They treated me wonderful in hospital,” he cried. “And then they fitted me out with these swell clothes and give me this pack. And I set out to join friends I got in the Tobacco Country where I am sure of a job. And all the way from Montreal, it has just been a case of one lift after another. It’s been wonderful. The kindest people…”
“You’ve got a nice attitude towards life,” said Jim.
“How COULD I have any other kind of attitude, sir?” laughed the young man uproariously. “Why, it’s just like a story. I never knew how swell everything could be.”
“Keep that attitude, son,” I stated, “and nothing can ever beat you.”
“You bet, sir,” cried the young man. “Gee, it’s swell in the back of this car. The wind in your face and the fresh air and everything.”
“I like an open car,” I agreed. “Except when it rains. These early rains are kind of mucky in an open car, even with the top up.”
“I like rain,” cried the lad. “I like rain in my face. If I don’t get a lift right away, I’m going to walk on a piece, and when the rain comes, I’ll just lift up my face and let her rain. Gee, it’s swell to get out of hospital.”
Jim looked at me, and I took my eyes off the road long enough to return the glance. Jim’s face was soft.
“Did your hospital give you any dough?” I inquired. “I mean, your meals and things?”
“Oh, no, sir,” said the lad, shocked. “They’d done enough for me. I wouldn’t have taken no money, even if they offered it. I can get along all right. I just walk along, and even my meals seem to come. It’s like you stopping and picking me up, just to carry me across the city.”
Again Jim gave me a nudge. I knew what he meant. Weren’t his last words on the subject about not knowing what good you might do by picking up some unknown?
“When did you eat last?” inquired Jim.
“Oh, I don’t worry,” laughed the young man evasively. “I’ll just drop in at some farm house along the highway. They’ll give me a handout. I’ll call at lunch time, so as not to put them to any trouble…”
“Haven’t you any money at all?” I demanded. “Not even a dime?”
“A man don’t need money,” replied the boy, “when he’s got his health and everything. The way everybody treats you, a guy don’t need money. Money only gets people into trouble.”
“You’re righter than you know, son,” I assured him. I was passing High Park. I was driving this exceptional young man to the Humber. Jim sat back very pleased with me, I could see. He was also feeling in his pants pockets, counting his change.
“Gee, what a swell city Toronto is,” said the boy, “with the blue lake all along it, and those trees in there. Ain’t they pretty? Gee, Toronto people should be glad to be alive.”
“We’re proud of our city,” I agreed. “People give it a bad name, sometimes, for being tight-fisted or not having much of the bright lights and jazz that goes with most big towns.”
“I kind of hate to be going through it,” said the young fellow. “But maybe some day I will come back.”
“I rather think you will, young man,” I stated. “And in different circumstances. A young man setting out in life with your philosophy is likely to be heard of, same day.”
“Gee, that’s a nice thing to say,” said the boy a little huskily. “But I guess it’s just part of the way everything is turning out so swell for me …”
A Superb Philosophy
He sat back in the seat, overwhelmed by the thought of his good fortune. And then we came to the Humber. I was genuinely sorry to come to the city’s edge. I would have liked to transport this young man a long way on his happy journey. Even to the Tobacco Country, where his friends awaited him. I imagined they would be rather nice friends.
“Here you are, my lad,” I said. “This is the city’s edge. Here you can catch the cars that are heading for the west.”
“I’ll have no trouble, believe me,” cried the young man, opening the back door and heaving up his pack. I had turned, to have a look at his fine open homely face, so ruddy, his eyes so frank and looking so straightly into yours. But I also turned to get at my pocket.
“Here, kid,” I said. “Two bits. Just to …”
“No, no,” he flushed, backing away. “Please, sir… it was swell of you…”
“Hey,” said Jim, “don’t be a fool, boy. Here’s a bit of change. You never know when you’ll need a bit of money. Always keep a few cents in your pocket. Come.”
And so firmly did Jim speak that the poor embarrassed young man reluctantly stepped forward with shamed hand accepted 50 cents from Jim and a quarter from me. It was my hand that was ashamed. I wished it was a dollar I had fished up.
“Thank you…” said the young man, torn between embarrassment but flushed with the joy of living that had him in its spell.
“Good luck, kid,” I cried, letting in the clutch.
And we turned back east and up through the park home.
“There,” said Jim, “is a man of character. The frank, honest eyes. The simple, amiable spirit. The gratitude. Isn’t it a terrible reflection on our day and age that that poor youngster should have been wandering the streets of Montreal, homeless, starving…”
“I have a feeling,” I said, “that he will get on. He has a superb philosophy. He finds the world good. And lo, it is good.”
“Let that be a lesson to us,” agreed Jim. “If we look upon the world as a hard, unfriendly place, that’s the way the world is. To us. But when you look upon the world as a happy, friendly, kindly place, the world can’t be too good to you.”
“I feel better for having encountered that young man,” I admitted. “I learned a lot from him.”
So I dropped Jim off at his place and dashed home to change into my old clothes and get my tackle together before Jim called for me. He was only allowing me 30 minutes.
And in 40 minutes, Jim tooted out in front and I hurried out with my haversack and rod case and climbed aboard Jim’s car. The rain had held off, but the sky was lowering.
We had to go back east through the city and out the Kingston Road to catch the north highway to the trout pond. As we emerged from the High Park road, and turned on to the Lake Shore drive again, we saw, standing on the downtownward curb a familiar figure.
“Hello,” said Jim. “There’s our friend again. I wonder what’s happened? Maybe he forgot something in the city.”
As we approached, he thumbed with the same boyish countrified enthusiasm, his face beamed, his eyes gleamed with expectation. We drew in alongside and he scrambled the back door open and threw his pack in.
“Gee, thank you, gentlemen,” he cried, as he sank into the seat. “With those rainclouds coming up, I was scared I’d never get a lift and I’ve got to get to Montreal before morning or never see my dear old mother alive again.”
I was just going to turn around when Jim gave me a very sharp nudge.
“It’s a long way to Montreal,” said Jim in in an unnatural voice.
“Yes, sir,” cried the young man, with deep feeling, “but I’ll get there, never fear. It’s just as if something or somebody was taking care of me. Helping me. Guess what time I left Windsor this morning, sir?”
“I don’t know,” said Jim. “If you left this morning you’ve certainly made good time to be this far.”
“I left,” cried the young man, with a sort of ecstasy in his voice, “at 8 o’clock. Boy, have I had luck, and has everybody been kind! How far as you going, gentlemen.”
“We’re going as far as Bowmanville,” said Jim, still in the queer voice and burying his neck in the old fishing coat he had on.
“Well, sir, that’s wonderful,” cried the lad. “You can drop me in Bowmanville, and I bet you won’t be out of sight before somebody else has picked me up. It’s the strangest thing. It’s almost supernatural.”
“Everybody Helping Me”
I cleared my throat, but Jim gave me another nudge.
“You see, sir,” said the young man in a quivering voice, “I haven’t been a very good son. I have been down in Windsor all winter, unemployed, and trying to get a little money to send home. I been sick, too, and often didn’t know where to sleep the night. But I always dreamed of getting a job in the motor industry down there, and who knows? I might have been somebody. I might have come to see my old mother far different from this…”
I could contain myself no longer. I turned around in the seat and glared at the young man. His face was one of the saddest I had ever seen. His eyes were dark with pain. His jaw was set as is the jaw of desperation. He looked bravely at me. But without recognition. Probably on account of my fishing clothes and old fishing hat.
“Will you be going into hospital in Montreal?” I inquired icily.
“Hospital?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “the hospital in Montreal will treat you swell and give you those clothes and that packsack and send you happily on your way to the Tobacco Country where your friends await you…”
He sat up sharply. His face instantly transformed itself into the happy, flushed sparkle-eyed lad we had picked up before lunch.
“Oh,” he laughed. “It’s you? You gents picked me up in the little open car?”
“That’s right,” I gritted.
“So what is this?” demanded the young fellow, grasping his packsack and a glint coming into his eyes. “Is this a hold-up?”
“We ought to drive you to a police station,” I snarled.
“And get your 75 cents back?” laughed the lad. “Too late. It’s a T-bone steak and three pieces of pie now.”
“You’re a swindler,” I shouted.
“Call me what you like,” laughed the young man boisterously, “so long as I eat.”
“Why, you… you…” I protested.
“Drive me anywhere,” he shouted cheerfully. “I can tell as good a tale to a policeman as to anybody. Drop me anywhere, on any road, and it will suit me as good as the next.”
“You’re nothing but a swindler,” I accused, though Jim was laughing helpless beside me.
“I suppose I am,” chuckled the young man “But it’s better than hopelessly wandering the streets or breaking my back for pennies. It’s better than starving. The stories I tell bring out the best in the people I meet. The few dimes they part with don’t hurt them. I’m an entertainer. I get paid for my entertainment. So what’s the difference?”
“Where do you want to be dropped?” cried Jim joyfully.
“On the far edge of the city will be best sir,” said the young man. “I can catch the travellers there, as they near home, full of a friendly feeling.”