Transcript : Did the Shoes Fit?
“I was invited to tell, from memory, a true story at Tell Us Something which took place yesterday evening (6/11/13) at the Missoula Top Hat, hosted by Marc Moss. The rules were that the story was true, told from memory, and told in less than ten minutes. I spent some time earlier in the day writing my story to help me be coherent in its telling and to make sure that it could be told in less than ten minutes (I was on the stage for 9 minutes). Here is the written story, which is a bit different than what I told from memory.” –SS.
This all happened when I was 20 years old and had already been drifting for a few years. One winter evening I chanced upon an old man, found him when he was hurt and dying, and my finding him saved his life. His name was interesting, Gervie English, and he thought I was an angel sent to answer his prayers. But really I had saved him by accident and for the most selfish of reasons. Gervie changed my life though. Profoundly. And now, looking back 35 years, I realize that he was my angel.
I first started running away from home when I was 14, and by the time I was 17 was more comfortable sleeping outside than in any bed. Thirty five years ago college was almost free, I had tried it a few times, and I always, — and still do — loved studying, but when the story I’m telling you took place, I was much more of a migrant laborer than a student. I would work for a while someplace, then hitchhike back to Montana where I liked backpacking alone and living outside. I never planned on becoming or finishing anything because I never thought I would live to 30.
Anyway, when I was 20, I had dropped out of college again. It was winter, and I didn’t have a place to live — so I hitchhiked down to Los Altos where mybrother lived, to stay with him for a while andtolook for a job. I was totally flat broke. That meant my total net worth was probably no more than the few items in my pack, andwhat was in my pockets, a harmonica and maybe ten bucks.
My brother had a bicycle, and each morning I would borrow that and just ride all over the place. I was good with electronics and fixing machines, and I also knew how to program computers — something which 35 years ago was more of an oddity than a marketable skill — so I would go into large glass buildings and ask what they did, and see if I could get hired doing something neat, but mostly I stopped at constructions sites and asked if they needed any day laborers. I had been looking for a few days without any luck when I found Gervie English.
I had ridden the bike to San Jose, looking for work and being rejected everywhere, and I was ridding back to Los Altos. It was early evening, just starting to get dark. I was riding on a frontage road that paralleled one of the interstates there. To my right, between the frontage road and the Interestate there was a strip of lawn, then a chain link fence, and immediately behind the chain link fence was a concrete noise blocking wall which was a bit lower then the chain link fence. To my left was just industrial crap andwarehouses shut down for the day.
I notice things that are easy to overlook, and That evening I noticed that the grass on the strip of lawn was freshly mowed. And then, I noticed that there was a pair of sneakers, tied together at the shoelaces, hanging from the top of the chain link fence. When I was about 50 feet past the where the shoes where hanging, I thought, “Wow! Adidas!” — the hot brand back then — “They look like would fit me!” I turned the bike around. The only explanation that I could think of for a pair of shoes hanging from the top of a fence was that whomever had recently mowed the lawn must have put on a pair of boots, and taken his sneakers off, hanging them up out of the way, and had forgotten them.
When I walked over to where the shoes where I realized how tall both the chain link fence and the concrete wall were. Higher than I could reach, so about nine feet. I almost didn’t bother, but the shoes looked almost new, so I climbed up. The interstate was about 100 feet away on the other side, and most of that 100 feet was bushes, manzanita or something else dense.
The pair of shoes were dangling there, one on one side, one on the other, and as I was trying to untangle them from the sharp ends of the chain link, I looked over the sound barrier wall, and freaked out. There, Burried in bushes, and smashed up against the stone wall, was a car wreck. And sitting in the driver’s seat with his window rolled down, was a dead man. Except he wasn’t dead. He was just dying. I noticed that he was breathing, all smashed in there, trapped. I yelled something dumb, like, “hey! you ok?” He opened his eyes, looked at me, and whispered, “Water!”
I dropped down. Got on my bike. Raced a few blocks up to a convenience store. Used the outside phone and called 911, and then went back to where the shoes where to help them find the guy.
Then police came. At first they didn’t believe me. I had long hair. Police never believe any guy with long hair. But they climbed up the fence, said, “Jesus,” and got really serious. They took my name and my brother’s phone number and then I got on the bike and rode back to my brother’s place. I didn’t think much about it, other than being a bit bummed out that I hadn’t gotten the pair of Adidas, and I peddled back fast to keep warm, as it was getting really cold and dark out. It would get to near freezing that night.
Back at my brother’s place I didn’t even mention finding the wreck. Then there was a phone call for me. A woman, it was Gervies’s wife, was calling from one of the local hospitals, and she said that her husband was in surgery and they didn’t know how it would turn out, but that she wanted to meet me. All I thought, was maybe I would get a reward. I borrowed my brother’s motorcycle and went to the hospital. It was about eleven at night when I showed up at the waiting area. There were a lot of people sitting there, all of them looked over 30 and really depressed. I was standing there, me, holding a motorcycle helmet, my hair untied and over my shoulders. Wondering who Mrs. English was, I asked, “Mrs. English?” A woman looked up at me and asked, “Are you Steve?” and when I said yes, suddenly all of the people in the room were on their feet, surrounding me, hugging me, crying.
It turns out that Gervie had been trapped, and hurting, in that smashed car, buried in the bushes, for three days and two nights. The doctors said he wouldn’t have survived another night, his kidneys failing, his injuries too much, the cold of the night’s weather. He had somehow wrecked, a blown tire, who knows, on the way to work three days ago, gone off the interstate, plowed through the bushes, smashed against the wall, and no one had seen. He disappeared in the middle of a city. And all his friends worried. A search. But they couldn’t find him. On the third day, dying of thirst and pain, he had heard someone mowing the lawn on the other side of the wall. The car horn had been smashed in the wreck. He had chest injuries and couldn’t yell. Desperation. He had taken his shoes off, tied them together, and tossed them up and out the window. But they snagged on the top of the wire fence. The Adidas that might have fit me.
I waited with them until he came out of surgery. He survived and I was really tired. As I road the motorcycle back to my brother’s place before dawn, I remembered being bummed out that no one had given me a reward.
Two evenings later I got another phone call. This one from Gervie himself. He wanted to meet me. I borrowed the motorcycle again, thinking, “Maybe this time I will get a reward.”
I was expecting some old, shell of a person, but Gervie was vibrant and talkative, and one of the most interesting people I had ever met. He spoke of all the people he knew, all his friends that had been affected by his disappearance. But mostly he asked me questions, wanting to know about my life, and where, at 20, I thought I was going. I didn’t have answers for that, but I did tell him that I had come down from Montana to look for work. He said that he had prayed for someone to find me, and so God had sent me from Montana. I almost asked why God hadn’t sent me a few days earlier, but luckily I didn’t. And then, when I got up to go, he said, “wait,” and got his wallet from a night stand and took some money out and handed it to me. I took it. And then I looked at him. And I looked at the money, and then I looked inside myself a bit, and I shuddered a bit at what I saw. And something changed, bam, just like that. I handed the money back to him. I said, “I don’t want anything. I don’t need anything.” And he smiled at me. And then he said, almost like it was an afterthought, “oh, a friend of mine probably has a job for you,” and he wrote down a name and a phone number.
Because I had saved a best friend’s life, I got a job. I walked around writing down numbers on a clipboard and sometimes turning a knob or two. I worked there a week, and talked with my boss, Gervie’s best friend, a lot about technology and building things, and at the end of the week he said to me, “Steve, you shouldn’t be here. I know a head scientist who has been looking for a long time for someone like you. I’ll call and see if I can get you in there.” And he did, and I never had to look for work again.
I was 20, and just starting to learn that you help yourself the most when you help others. And not just in big ways like stumbling at the last moment onto a disaster, but in the smallest of ways, the angel ways of little nudges, selfless giving and small acts of kindness. Gervie and I kept in touch for a few years. I wrote to him when I graduated from college. I wrote to him when I had kids. I searched on the internet and found out that he died in 1998. I also searched online for the newspaper article that was published in the San Jose Mercury in 1978, but their archives don’t go back that far. My memories do though, and I think of Gervie often. And I still wonder why, if there is a God, why I wasn’t a few days earlier. And, smiling, I sometimes wonder if his shoes would have fit me.
(c) 2013 Steve S. Saroff