Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Tis the Season of Giving...TOO MUCH

During this December season of giving, I've recently been taking a long, hard look into my soul, wondering if I've been 'giving' enough. My conclusion? I'm afraid I've been too giving of late. In fact, I've come to realize that, over the past year of 2014, I've basically been a complete pushover.

For most of 2014, I had been blind to how big of a pushover I'd become. However, I experienced a great epiphany after a recent borderline-absurd incident where I was - once again - roped into being a Good Samaritan. This epiphany made me realize that it was time I needed to curtail my 'giving' nature.


It was the night of December 5, 2014. I'd had a long day of raking leaves (a side-job I’ve been doing) and dog-walking (another side job). It was my mom’s birthday, so we were all planning on going out to dinner. My plan was to take a separate car so I could run to the mall and grab a birthday gift for my mom afterwards. But I was too tired to drive, so I decided I would get the gift a little later, once I had relaxed a bit and got something in my stomach. I hopped in the backseat of my dad’s RAV4 and we were off. 

We were only 30 seconds down the road - pulling out of our neighborhood onto the main street - when we saw a car right in the middle of the main street, basically blocking most of the street we were pulling out of. We saw a woman standing outside the car on her phone. Based on her body language, it looked like she was in distress. Maybe it was a medical emergency or maybe she had even been in an accident. We couldn't see any noticeable damage to the car but it was too dark out to be sure. 

My dad rolled down the window and asked if the woman needed help. She yelled, “Yes! I'm out of gas!”

"Oh we go," I thought to myself. I think there was an inner voice telling me that trouble was brewing. But we couldn't just leave her there...

We turned the car around and I poked my head out the window.

"We have a gas tank in our garage!" I yelled to the lady in distress. "We'll be right back!"

I hopped out of our car and ran back to my house, thinking that I would get there faster on my feet, which was not really true. I got the gas tank out of the garage, the one I use to fill the lawnmower, along with a small funnel. Then I ran back to help the distressed woman.

In the meantime, some other random Good Samaritan had stopped to try and help the lady out. He helped hold the funnel at an angle while I put the gas in. The funnel wasn’t that great. Gas was oozing out and streaming down the side of the car. I poured a good gallon or two in. The car still wouldn’t start and when the lady turned the key in the ignition, it sounded like there was a bigger problem than lack of gas. It became abundantly clear that this wasn't a simple matter of putting a little gas in the car (at least, so we all thought). We knew we had to get her car off the main road.

By now, my dad was back to help. We had the lady put the car in neutral and, with the help from the other random Good Samaritan, we rolled the car off to a side street with a dead end and no busy traffic. The random Samaritan took off (good decision on his part) and then my dad had the lady come back to our house while he called Triple AAA for her...well, actually it wasn’t Triple AAA. My dad has car insurance through USAA and it sucks pretty bad. 

Why did my dad have to use his insurance? Well, the lady apparently had no insurance, which would be illegal I guess, but she was driving her "friend's" car who maybe had insurance...but she couldn't get in touch with this friend...or something? Nothing she told us made much sense and my dad is too nice of a guy to have interrogated this lady with many questions. So, yes, without thinking too much about it, my dad called his own personal insurance company while the lady came back to our house and helped herself to crackers, cheese and tea.

I should probably mention this lady - whose real name I will not say - was black and maybe in her forties or something. I should also probably mention her nickname was "Kitty" or some of her friends called her "Kitty Cat". Kitty said she had gotten out of the hospital recently - having undergone some surgeries - and was still in a great deal of pain. She tried to explain that she had just dropped a friend off five minutes away but didn’t have his phone number so she couldn’t call him for help. I'm not sure if it was this "friend" who owned the car or another friend. Again, nothing she was saying made much sense and - as offensive as it may sound - I had a gut feeling that she had just come from the prison that itself was five minutes down the road and she just didn’t want to admit it. I know, I know: it sounds horrible that I would think this, but it was the only explanation that made sense. She was being very vague about where she had just been, but who knows? Maybe she was telling the absolute truth and it just happened to be truth that didn't seem to make much sense. Either way, what mattered most was that she apparently didn't have anybody she could call for help. Along with having no insurance, she also didn't have any cash on her. And no credit card. She didn’t even have her driver's license on her. This kind of made me feel like she may have just gotten out of prison herself, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and suspected that she may have just been visiting somebody.

I didn’t feel threatened by this Kitty-Kat lady but she was weird. She said a lot of awkward things while she was in the kitchen talking to my parents and myself. In fact, the first thing she said was that she was Catholic and she wasn’t going to rob us. We were, like, "ummmm, thanks?" Then my dog Brownie came and sniffed her crotch, which is not unusual for a dog to do with a stranger. Kitty laughed and said “Oh, don’t do that haha - I guess your dog can tell I’ve been abstinent for three years.” Seeing that my parents are very Catholic and the topic of sex is basically taboo, the joke was cringing-ly awkward. 

What was perhaps even more awkward was that Kitty made a lot of self-deprecating black jokes. She said something like how maybe she should wait by the car but, then again, the tow truck driver may not be able to see her in the dark unless she smiled. We didn’t know whether to laugh at this joke or what the hell we should do. Keep in mind that it had only been a week since the Ferguson racial riots. Racial sensitivity was at an all-time high in America. We didn't know whether to laugh or just pretend we didn't hear the joke.

The tow truck was taking its sweet-ass time getting to the house. After about forty minutes, the tow service called - not to say that they were close - but to confirm that they would need to bring some gas for the car. My dad had already confirmed this the first time he called them. Yes, they should bring gas! They said 'ok' and that they would be there in about 25 minutes. Those 25 minutes came and went. It wasn't until about another 20 minutes that the truck showed up. In total, it took them about 90 minutes!

We wanted to kick ourselves as soon as the tow driver poured a few gallons of gas in the car and the engine started purring right away. All it needed was gas, after all, but apparently it needed a lot more gas than what I had initially put in. All we really had to do - in hindsight - was take the lawnmower tank back down to the gas station and fill it one or two more times. Instead, my dad had to pay for the tow truck dude to come because, as I mentioned before, Kitty had no money on her. Oh, and the insurance company didn't cover it because it wasn't my dad's car, so my dad had to pay right out of his pocket. My dad also had to pay for the gas that the truck driver brought. But even after the tow dude left, the gas tank in the lady's car was still practically right on Empty so my dad had to give the lady another twenty dollars for more gas because, and let me reiterate this for the third time, she didn't have cash or a credit card on her!

What the hell? What could we have done differently? All we did was stop to help out this lady and maybe put some gas in her car. But stopping for this lady - doing the Good Samaritan thing - seemed to open up Pandora’s box.

After the tow service came and the car started, I told my dad that he and my mom should rest and that "I could take it from here". Kitty was still clueless as to how to (apparently) get anywhere, so I had her follow me down to the gas station and I helped her put in the gas. This was when it got a little weirder because she clearly started flirting with me. She was wondering whether I had a girlfriend and she wanted to take me out to dinner sometime for thanks. Maybe she was just being appreciative but I could feel the shift in energy. I know she was flirting with me. I don't mean to toot my horn but I wasn't born yesterday. She was very touchy-feely.

After I put the twenty dollars of gas in her car, I asked her where, exactly, she was headed and she said, "South Norwood". I also asked her if she knew how to get there. She pointed in the complete wrong direction and said...

"That way. Right?"

On one hand, I probably could have just cut her loose at this point and hope that she found her destination eventually. But I figured - what the hell? - my parents and I had already helped her out so much. I might as well just take the final step and have her follow me to South Norwood, which was really only about seven minutes away. Yes, I decided to go the distance with Kitty. It would have been a shame (and a waste of money on my dad's part) if we helped her out as much as we did only to have her not reach her final destination.

"Oh, thank you! Thank you! The Lord sent me angels tonight!"

Kitty gave me a big hug and rocked me back and forth in her arms. Then we exchanged cell numbers, just in case we got split up. This was actually my idea. I was trying to cover all the bases. It was one of those nights where everything that could go wrong WOULD go wrong. However, I think that Kitty interpreted me wanting her phone number as me wanting to get in her pants. This was not true but I do have to admit that the scenario of helping a stranded driver and then having the favor returned by you-know-what DID kind of turn me on in a weird, kinky, sexual fantasy kind-of-way. I did not act on such impulses, however. I did not get any sugar-luvin' from Kitty at any point, I assure you.

We got in our respective cars and Kitty followed me all the way to Norwood. Fortunately, nothing else went wrong en route. Kitty had said that she was going to "Short Street" specifically and I thought I knew where that was and I did actually find it with no problem. I pulled over to the side of the road almost immediately and I was miraculously in front of the very house that Kitty was trying to get to. It was a friend's house. I’m not sure if this friend was a girl or a guy. I didn't really give a crap, though.

Kitty pulled her car over in front of my car. Then I saw her getting out and walking over to me.

"Come on out so I can hug you," she said to me.

I got out of my car and not only did she hug me but she also gave me a big smacker on the cheek. In fact, I forgot to mention that she had given my dad a wet smacker as well, right before he and Kitty parted ways. She also said to my dad...

“Bet you’ve never been kissed by a black woman before.” 

My dad kind of pretended he didn't hear her and couldn't think of anything else to say except, "Make sure you call us when you're safe at your house." It was another awkward moment amidst the strange series of events.

Kitty told me to keep in touch and that she would call me sometime. I didn't tell her not to, so I guess the door's open haha. But I doubt she'll ever call. We parted ways and that was that. It was after nine o'clock at this point but I was actually only three minutes from the restaurant my parents and I were planning on going to, so I popped into the restaurant and asked if they were still serving dinner. They were. I called my parents whom hadn't eaten yet so they hopped in their car while I waited for them with a glass of strong IPA that would undoubtedly take the edge off my nerves. 

At least we still managed to fit my mom's birthday dinner in, but, seriously, this kind of stuff only seems to happen to me, and also my parents...more specifically, my dad. I think it’s because we’re overly nice people and we seem to get sucked into these situations when they present themselves. The funny thing is how it was timed so perfectly. Kitty had just run out of gas when we were leaving our neighborhood to go to dinner. If we had left even a minute earlier, I think we would have missed her. 

Throughout the experience, Kitty kept on saying that we were angels sent by the Lord. Maybe we were angels sent to help her, but it was almost absurd to see the extent to which we were sucked in to help. I mean, what were we supposed to do? "Sorry, ma'am, we just thought it would be as simple as feeding your car a couple gallons of gas, but now that we see it's more complicated than that, you're on your own because we would like to have dinner now." Maybe some people would have done that, but - for the most part - once you're sucked into a Good-Samaritan-situation, you kind of just have to ride it out.

And my poor dad: he had to spend about seventy dollars of his own money in total, between the tow service and the gas.

So, yes, we were possibly angels, or at least Good Samaritans, I suppose. The timing was just perfect; it definitely seemed serendipitous and OUR expense. I mean, don't get me wrong: being a Good Samaritan here and there is a good thing. I think it's kind of like God’s version of giving you jury duty. Every handful of years, He sends you a situation in life where you need to get your head out of your ass and offer somebody genuine, selfless help while expecting no personal gains in return.

But I feel like I've been one of those unlucky suckers who's been given "jury duty" waaaay too often. My experience with Kitty seemed to put a cap on a whole entire year of being a Good Samaritan. I can't go into details about the other instances. Let's just say I found myself constantly helping a person who had a knack for making very poor decisions that got them into bad situations. It was an imbalanced relationship, essentially, where I found myself doing way more giving than receiving. A lot of money was spent on this person, too.

Basically, I’m tired of cleaning up people’s messes who make (consistently) dumb decisions. I mean, come on, dude...that lady had no money on her, no credit card and hopped into a car that was waaaaay below E on the gas tank. Not the wisest decision and my Dad and I (my dad moreso because he had to pay for the tow truck and gas) had to clean up after the mess. I can't speak for my dad, but I'm sick of being amongst the smart(er) people who have to clean up after the dumb people. Who knows? Maybe it was a one-time dumb decision on Kitty's part, but it was so dumb that it led me to believe she was most likely making dumb decisions on a consistent basis.

What I'm saying here is that being a Good Samaritan is good, but I think there’s a line to be drawn. It’s one thing to help out good people who are just having a bad day or make an occasional mistake that anybody else could make. But it’s another thing to be helping out people making blatantly dumb decisions and never learning from them and who just go and make more dumb decisions that they have to be bailed out of.

During this season of giving, I guess we have to learn the fine, tight-rope walk of being a Good Samaritan. I don't think God’s idea of a Good Samaritan is a person who cleans up after another person’s constant dumb decisions. Sometimes those in consistent distress should be left to rot in the gutter in order for them to learn to make better choices in life. It sounds harsh but there is definitely such a thing as being too nice to people. This is essentially called being a pushover. 

Again, let me reiterate: Kitty was a lady stranded in the middle of a main out of cash on credit wasn't her car so no insurance and no Triple AAA...she didn't even have a driver's license on her...and a she had a gas-guzzling car that required way more than a lawnmower-tank's worth of gas to get it started again. We did not leave her to rot in the gutter, but maybe we should have, because if she rotted - at least for a bit - she would be a little more careful about making better choices. Maybe she needed to learn that God won't always send her angels when she makes poor choices.

Who knows, maybe Kitty really was in a rare bind. Maybe she was having a bad day, or week, month or even year. Like I mentioned before, she said she had recently been in the hospital for a while. She said she had a botched surgery that had to be fixed and there was another (benign) tumor in her neck that still needed to be removed. Maybe she was on loads of pain medication and wasn't thinking clearly, which would explain her poor choices that night. Maybe I'm being an asshole right now, who knows...

Nevertheless, I still think I have a good point here. I'm sure many people out there have found themselves helping out people who ceaselessly make one poor choice after another. Sometimes people just need to rot and suffer a bit and stop relying on others to clean up after their bad decisions. Sometimes these people just need to reap what they sow.

As for me, I'm most likely going to continue to be a Good Samaritan. If I run across a stranded driver tomorrow, I will most likely help them out. But the incident with Kitty helped shine light on a more general problem in my life: basically, that people have taken advantage of my generosity. I have given way more than I've received. I've been sucked into too many situations where I've taken on another person's problems, problems that were born out of that person's consistently-poor choices in life. My giving needs to stop, or at least be curtailed a bit. This holiday season will therefore not be the "season of giving". It will be more like the "season of not continuing to clean up the messes of those who've made consistently poor choices in life."

Boom. I like the sound of that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


NOTE: this is a fun little short story (a memoir) that I recently wrote for a holiday writing contest.


by matt burns

“Matt, can you help me out with this? My back’s kind of bothering me.”

I grabbed the cardboard box and it was heavy, that’s for sure. I took it out of the garage and plopped it down on the couch in the family room. My mom never remembered what box had what. It was either the ornaments, ceramic XMAS trees, outdoor Xmas lights, indoor Xmas lights, or the…

“Oh, this one’s got the toilet paper people,” mom said, peering into the box.

“The what?”

“The toilet paper people.”

“Ah, yes, the Toilet-Paper People.”

I looked into the box and carefully took out my Frankensteinian creations. My little babies were still in rather excellent condition. I figured they must have been about 25-years-old, give or take, but the memory of making them was still so vivid in my head.

I was in the third grade when I created my first Toilet-Paper Person. It was early December and I was in art class. The teacher handed out the discarded cardboard cylinders that had – not long ago – been enwrapped in multiple sheets of rolled toilet paper.

“Gross, what are we supposed to do with these things?” all the students wondered.

The teacher told us that we were going to make people out of them.


“Yes, people. Are you deaf?” (Note: she did not say ‘are you deaf?’. I made that part up for dramatic purposes.)

The cardboard cylinder was to function as a torso from which we were to create a person. With the help of some paste, yarn, and some construction paper, we all went to work. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein only I didn't have an Igor to assist me, which frustrated me a bit. By the end of the class, my creation was complete. My first Toilet-Paper Person! It was alive!

The first TP person I made in art class.
Indeed, I was amazed by the creative process. Maybe it even made me feel like God but maybe I’m being overly dramatic when I say that. Let’s just say that I had fun creating something that did actually look like some form of a new friend. There were eyes and a nose made out of construction paper, hair made out of yarn, a coat made out of smock scraps…in the end, there actually seemed to be a personality to the face…maybe even a soul. Ok, maybe not a soul. What I’m getting at here is that I didn’t have many friends back then. Or maybe I’m being cliché here and I actually had plenty of friends, but maybe I didn’t like many of my real friends so I wanted fake ones…made out of discarded toilet-paper rolls. I’m not sure what it was. All I knew was that I liked this toilet-paper person that I – yes I!!! – had created. And, heck, I wanted to create more of these friends!

Which is exactly what I set out to do.

The theme I had in mind was based on the Enchanted Village at the Jordan Marsh in Boston's Downtown Crossing. To be honest with you, I’m not even sure I ever walked through the actual village, but one December my parents took me into Downtown Crossing and we walked by the Jordan's storefront where there were large window displays and within those displays there were miniature versions of the Enchanted Village, complete with fake snow.

I was so…um…enchanted by the fantasy world. I wanted to escape my current reality and live inside that enchanted reality. Yes, reality (in my eyes) was terrible. I did not like school at all and I still had a few weeks to go until Xmas break. I wanted to live in an Enchanted Village that looked so lovely, and I figured, why not create my own village…and inhabit it...with Toilet-Paper People? Eureka!

From that day forward, whenever I wasn’t forced to be in school, I secluded myself in my office and went to work making the Toilet-Paper People. Of course, when I say “office”, I really mean a little area with a small table in the corner of my dining room. This was the go-to place I hunkered down in when I needed to work on some important dioramas or gods-eyes or (in this case) Toilet-Paper People.

My ensuing creations were three times better than my original TP person I made in art class. Instead of using simple construction paper to make eyes, I used buttons. For a mouth, I either used yarn or small pieces of pipe cleaner. I used frayed cotton balls to make beards and gray hair. I found some of my mom's old bell-bottoms from the 70's, cut off some scraps and made shawls/kerchiefs out of them. I even made beaded necklaces for jewelry. In other words, I was making some highly-evolved TP-people.

I put in some long hours. Afternoons. Nights. Weekends. I needed plenty of grape-flavored Juicy-Juice to keep my motor running. I even tried to sneak in some work if I was home “sick” from school (muahaha sometimes I was a little faker – but, really, who needed to learn their times tables when there were Toilet-Paper People to be made?!). 

The Old Maid's in the middle.
After about a week of intense hard work, I had created a whole village-worth of people. There were young TP men and women, old ladies and old men, old maids wearing kerchiefs while looking desperately for a husband, a Santa Claus and even my most favorite Toilet-Paper Person: a Scrooge!

But, wait, the village still wasn’t complete, mainly because there was no village, just people so far. More work had to be done.

One of my favorites: Scrooge.
I took a flat piece of cardboard and glued a bunch of cotton balls to it, which acted as snow. Then I took a small cardboard box and decorated it to look like a house. I folded another piece of small, flat cardboard to make a triangular roof and glued cotton on that as well. Then I surrounded the house with my beloved Toilet-Paper People and I couldn’t believe what I saw before my eyes: there it was…my very own Enchanted Village. I did it!

I proudly displayed my Enchanted Village on a shelf in our finished basement and that's where they've been every Christmas since. When January inevitably arrived, I was always sad to see the Enchanted Village get packed up in a box along with all the other Xmas decorations. I suppose if I had begged my parents, they would have let me keep it up all year, but then it wouldn’t have been as exciting unearthing the village every December and escaping to my fantasy world full of pure enchantment where no school existed!

I encourage you to make some Toilet-Paper People of your own. Actually, it’s pretty simple. Just save your cylinders of cardboard TP rolls when you’ve finished using every last square of toilet paper. Then just get creative. Make a face out of whatever materials you have around the house. Use some old fabric or tissue paper to make clothing. Make a beaded necklace. Make a Santa Claus…a Scrooge…maybe even make an old maid looking for a husband. The sky’s the limit!

That's right, folks: using copious amounts of toilet paper doesn't have to be a pain in the bum anymore (pun was intended). Just think: the more TP you use, the closer you'll get to making a new Toilet-Paper Person! Talk about turning a negative into a positive. 

Season's greetings!