Monday, December 29, 2008

Holly Jolly Hangover [The one where I talk to strangers]

One more story before the annual holiday overdose and detox.

As I have already shared, this year more than any I can remember has filled me with a good-natured holiday spirit, apparently so much so that I'm even stopping to help strangers on the street. This is a strange little tale of such holidaytime mitzvot, if you'll indulge me.

About a week or so ago, I was finishing up a round of holiday shopping when I decided to hit up Papaya King on 86th St. for a little festive frankfurter. As I passed by the Loews theater I was flagged down by a fairly ordinary looking gentleman. Having grown up around and now lived in the Big Apple, I was wary of someone trying to grab my attention saying, "Excuse me, excuse me, I'm not gonna ask you for money, could I just ask you something for one second?" Usually such a person is actually trying to say, "I'm about to ask you for money in a very strange way, could I just harass you for several uncomfortable seconds and/or minutes?" I was leery, but he said he wouldn't ask for money and I guess I figured I could just be on my way if he did, so I slowed down to the old, I'm-walking-past-you-but-slowing-down-and-making-eye-contact-so-you-have-roughly-4-seconds-to-make-your-pitch-before-I-move-on pace.

"Hey man, I know this is crazy but I was just in there with my girlfriend and we started arguing, she stormed out and stole my car and drove back to Jersey," he started, gesturing toward the movie theater. "I gotta get on the Path train and get my car back, but I have no cash and they won't refund my tickets," the man continued. Producing two ticket stubs, he made his pitch: "They won't give me my money back because I'm just one person with the two ticket stubs, but like I said my girlfriend ran out on me. You think you could try to take these inside and get my refund for me so I'll have some cash for the train?"

Right now you might be in disbelief that I let this exchange go on for even this long. You may be shouting at your screen, "Walk away, Schiff! Walk the eff away!" Nine times out of ten I would have, but something kept me involved with this one. It was just too confusing. I couldn't walk away without more details. "Why would they give me - a single person with two ticket stubs - a refund when they wouldn't give it to you?" I asked. The man told me he couldn't be sure that they would, but also added that when he had attempted to get a refund he "Got a little smart with the manager." Alright, more pieces of the puzzle falling into place. At this point I'm skeptical and almost about to walk away. If this guy wants to fight with his girlfriend and cause a scene in a movie theater, let him find his own way home, right? I just couldn't do it, though. I gave him a cross-eyed, "Who farted?" face and voiced my doubt. "I don't know, man, seems pretty unlikely." That's when he hit me with this gem:

"The worst that can happen is they say no."

I thought it over for a second and I decided, "Hot damn, 3rd avenue stranger, you're right. What the hell? It's relatively light outside, we're in a crowded area, you seem harmless, albeit sketchy, enough. I'm gonna do it. Gimme them ticket stubs. All they can do is say no, right?" With that I was off on my mission. I took the stubs, walked into the theater and cut the entire line of people waiting to buy tickets. I got to the front counter, bypassed the manager-type in the button-down and set my sights on my target, the wide-eyed, probably less likely to ask questions teenage cashier. I approached her and ad libbed a story about my car is getting towed, my girlfriend ran after the tow truck and I need to refund these tickets because we're not staying. The cashier, not wanting to question the fact that a man whose car is presently being towed for some reason has time to stop and refund his movie tickets before chasing after the tow truck, looked up at me with those innocent eyes and said, "No problem." Sure enough, she took the ticket stubs, printed up and signed a little return receipt thing for the register, opened the drawer and started counting bills. "You paid cash for these, right?" she asked, catching me off guard. I replied that of course I had, and she produced 25 big ones. I took the money outside to my grateful new stranger friend, who seemed legitimately awestruck (although not enough to give me a portion of the refunded cash as a thank you). "God bless you, man," he said, turning toward New Jersey. "Dude," I said to him with a sheepish look, "get back to Jersey and make up with your girlfriend, damn." With a giggle and a grin he was off on his way, possibly to the Path station to track down and reconcile with his girlfriend, possibly to the nearest liquor store - I would have been more than upset if I had seen him at the Papaya King counter moments later - but I walked away feeling good. I had done a good deed for a fellow man in distress, a random act of kindness in the midst of the season of perpetual giving.

My question to you is, do you think it could have been a scam? Jaded as we are, New Yorkers think everyone that stops to talk to us is out to get us somehow. Oftentimes this is the case, but I don't necessarily think it was this time. I mean, who goes to the movies, then stands around outside the theater asking people to go in and refund the ticket stubs? Do people really go into movie theaters collecting stubs off the floor to then pull off the curbside bait-and-switch? He never once tried to take my money or get forceful with me. Is it possible that this simply was a random act of good will toward men? What do you guys think about all this? For now I'm going with a self-congratulatory, "Job well done," and hanging on to this one as a good Christmas story, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

On a completely unrelated note, my roommate just got back from this cruise, which creeps me the f out. Imagine you were on the ship and learned the news on your cabin television? Holy shit.