False Accusations and Foolish Kindness
Last updated 6/5/2019 at 2:04pm
Throughout my life, the only recurring nightmare I ever had was that of me, huddled in a corner, surrounded by an angry crowd screaming accusations. I still remember it - all too well.
It eventually happened, but without the crowd. The accuser owned a convenience store on the highway at Big Sky, and work was slow that month, so one morning we were visiting and he asked me if I wanted to work a few hours a week. I accepted his offer on a whim and went to work the next evening.
It was interesting in an ironic way. There were the weirdos, of course, but too few to keep the work interesting. One afternoon, though, Garrison Keillor walked into the store. The big, homely man was easy to recognize, and he told me that he was on the way to do his The Prairie Home Companion show in Butte. That was in the late 1990's.
But one afternoon, after I had been away for a few days, I stopped by the store. The owner wasn't there, but his assistant was. She told me that I had been fired, accused of shorting the till $10 and giving a fifty-cent candy bar to a toddler for just twenty-five cents.
Due to the nightmares, the shock hit me hard. The assistant didn't like me and was too smug as she explained that a "friend" had seen me ring up less than the total purchase, then pocket the difference.
As per the kid, I did that a lot. When a dirty-faced child showed up at the counter, holding a candy bar and a quarter, I took the kid's money, then threw my own two bits into the till to make up the difference.
She ended her false accusations, then added, "Don't worry, Dick, we won't say anything to anybody." I responded, "Well if you won't, I will."
And I did. The incident provoked a lot of comment after word got around. I reveled in my role as a defiant little martyr.
For a couple of weeks, many of my friends would stop by the store and rag on Mike, the owner, telling him that they were going to take their money up the road to the other convenience store. That got to Mike, so he called the cops.
I met with the deputy, and he handed me the tape from the till. I showed him that the $10 was entered right after the short amount and that Mike had earned his full twenty-five cents from the toddler. The deputy finally said, "That's fine, Dick, I'll talk to Mike and tell him that you didn't do anything wrong."
Many people asked me if I was going to sue Mike. One, a very rich fellow from Nevada, told me that he'd cover the expenses of a suit.
But I liked Mike. He was a genuinely kind man who had been convinced by his assistant that I was a thief. Everyone urged me to sue, but coming from a culture of tacit honesty, I didn't want to be vindictive or greedy.
The mini-boycott continued, but without rancor. Finally, Mike called me and apologized. We talked amicably, and he told me that another employee had quit the store in my support. I worried about what she would do to make a living. She managed well, so I didn't have to fall from being a valiant martyr to be a guilt-ridden fool. But later became accustomed to the phenomenon and got quite good at it.
He asked what it would take to make peace. I asked for a letter of apology in the local paper. He acceded to that, then invited me to have a meal with him at one of the more popular restaurants. He wanted us to be seen in public as a sign that we had made our peace. That would end the mini-boycott my unfair dismissal had caused, and had Mike in a financial panic.
Almost everyone told me that I should have sued, because "wrongful discharge" was easily proven in my case, and would have been worth a lot of money if I had taken it to court.
The fact that I had given up a lot of money for a hamburger didn't bother me in those days. I was strong and could work. That was enough back then.
But now, after passing through a number of foolish, self-made crises, I realize that I should have sued Mike, even if it drove him and his family into the streets to be eaten by rats.
But the old culture overrode the modern way of thinking, and foolish kindness prevailed. And even if I had become pseudo-rich, I'd have spent it buying diamond mines or racehorses, and be just as wretched as I am now.
So maybe it was best.