Posted: September 23, 2015 in Disability
Tags: , ,

Being useful was not on my mind when I pulled up in front of the Norwood Public Library one Saturday afternoon early in November. My plan was to go inside to write for a couple of hours while I waited for Tiffany to foof my daughter’s do at a nearby beauty shop. But with a hot cup of coffee in hand and a sign on the door that wouldn’t let me take it inside, I decided to hunker down in the van and sip away till I got my money’s worth.

Soon I noticed I had company. Across Merchant Drive a man was waiting for the KAT bus. Good luck with that on a IMG_0137_2Saturday, I thought, and focused on staying awake long enough to down my coffee. Then something I heard made me look at the guy again.

“I need a ride.” He seemed to be entreating the passing cars.

I looked at him a little more closely. Young. A big man, cream-colored sweatshirt and pants, the kind of outfit that obese people often wear when they can’t afford the big & tall stores.

“I need a ride!” He had begun to move into traffic, trying to flag down the passing cars. That’s never a smart move on Merchant Drive, and it was my first clue. I thought for a moment about calling the police, but I stood up out of the car and yelled to him, “Where are you going?”

“Home.” His voice was almost lost in the traffic. That was the second clue, and all I needed.

“I’ll take you,” I yelled. He started toward me. “Stay over there.”

I fired up the minivan, crossed the street, and pulled into the parking lot beside him.

“Where are you going?”

“Home. I’m going to be late for work.”

“Where’s home?”

He pointed down Clinton Highway toward downtown Knoxville and climbed in. I helped him buckle up, and in a remarkably small voice for such a big guy, he gave me minimal directions, pointing the way through the I-275 gap in Sharp’s Ridge and off at the first exit.

I learned that he worked in the back kitchen of Bravo!, a swanky Italian restaurant on Bearden Hill; that he had been working there three weeks; that he had gone to Central High School; that he had to be at work in two hours.

“How will you get to work tonight?”

“Bus. They run every hour.”

He guided me to a modest house on a modest side street in North Lonsdale. I let him out in the driveway.



I watched him in the door, then drove back to the library.

When I posted this story to Facebook a few minutes later, it provoked considerable comment. Many of my FB friends and acquaintances praised me for being a good guy. Several thanked me for a compassionate response they would not have made to a stranger. Several women said they just could not do that.

The praise was a little overblown — all of us can surprise ourselves with the unpremeditated compassion that seizes us sometimes. And there were calculations of risk that had to be made. The women who wouldn’t do it made the right calculations for them. If the young man had been a young woman, I might have looked for another way to help, but I would not have offered her a ride. And the young man should not have accepted a ride from a stranger. But at one point or another we all must risk depending on the kindness of strangers.

The clue that triggered my own risk-taking was his simple answer — “Home.” Not “over in Lonsdale” or “a couple of miles from here” but the bare word, as if everyone knew where his home was and it needed no further elaboration. His unsophisticated answer marked him as someone with an intellectual innocence that permeated everything he was. It put me on notice that, just for those few minutes, he needed my help, my care.

I thought that was all the story, but I was wrong.

IMG_0136_3Weeks later, in December, Emalie and I were caught out in Bearden doing late Christmas shopping, so we stopped in at Bravo! It’s a bustling, immaculate place with excellent pastas and an eager staff.

After our plates were delivered, when the server checked on us, I decided to ask. Given the uncertainties of disability and employment, I thought it unlikely that my rider was actually still working at the restaurant.

“Do you have a big guy who does something back in the kitchen? I met a guy who said he works here.”

She paused. “Is he ‘special’?”

Normally I bristle at that word, but I knew she was trying to be tactful about something she wasn’t sure how to say. I nodded.

“Oh, yeah! Tony!” She brightened when she called his name. “He rolls the silverware for us.” She gestured at a tray of napkin rolls nearby. “All the servers give him two dollars a shift for helping out. He’s great. Why?”

Briefly I told her about giving him a ride and being curious about whether he was holding down the job.

We were getting ready to go when Kate, the manager, came to the table.

“So you gave our guy a ride?”


“We really appreciate it.”

“I was glad to. I just wanted to know how it was going with him.”

Kate told us that he had come looking for the job without any placement help, though a job coach now looks in on him from time to time. When he can’t get to work by bus, he gets a ride from family. Kate was impressed with him from the start.

“I knew when I talked to him that there were things in the restaurant he couldn’t do, but I had this feeling about him. There was just something . . . so I asked our other managers to take a chance.”

Since Kate hired him, the restaurant has found him invaluable.

“He works hard. He is always eager to learn new ways to help out. Thanks again.”

She laid the bill on the table and left. When we went to pay it, we discovered it was comped.

Bravo! 1DA02A7B-0D87-43F0-ADDB-0D82EEB829CC

“Practice random acts of kindness.” That bumper sticker wisdom has been popular for a couple of decades. Do some unexpected good for a passerby. Surprise the person with a little unmerited good fortune — a modicum of grace, a crumb of compassion. The recipient will appreciate it and feel better about the world, and you’ll feel better about yourself. It’s a comforting philosophy.

You might think of my deed that way — impulsive, probably not wise, but sweet in a gentle way. And without premeditation, Emalie and I received a payback — an excellent meal, on the house.

Random acts of kindness are good as far as they go, but they don’t go far. Meeting the basic needs of a broken world requires organization, a system, and — most importantly — the courage to take a risk.

The real good here is that a man of limited abilities wanted to work, wanted it so badly that he summoned up the courage to seek the job. In a society that largely ignores the economic and human potential of people with disability, that was a heroic act. Then he committed himself to endure all the complicating logistics of getting there — even to the point of hitching a ride with a stranger.

He was fortunate to meet a restaurant manager who had hired people with disabilities in the past and who had the courage of her instincts, to risk hiring a worker who might not fit the mold of all the bright young kids she usually hires but who showed his own kind of promise. Her reward was a valuable employee, a reliable worker who could provide needed services.

And my rider got what he wanted, what we all want — a place to fit in, a way to be of use, a means of providing for oneself.


UPDATE: In May 2015, both Tony and Bravo! won Spirit of the ADA awards from Knoxville’s Disability Resource Center and were honored at a 25th anniversary celebration of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Market Square in Knoxville. Since then Tony has trained another worker with a disability to work with him, and Kate is exploring how Bravo! might hire workers who are on the autism spectrum.

  1. Lamar Gibson says:

    Nicely done, all the way around.

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