One afternoon not long ago, a limping man approached me in the parking lot of my son's day-care center. I'd just finished strapping my toddler into his car seat when I stood up and noticed the man standing five feet away from me, staring.
He wore holey jeans, a worn denim jacket, and boots so old that the black leather had turned gray. His salt-and-pepper hair was greasy, his beard unkempt.
He said he was staying at a shelter, along with his wife and three kids, about seven blocks away. He said his house in the next county over had burned down; that he'd lost everything; that the apartment he'd rented was not yet ready for occupancy. He'd walked downtown to buy his wife a present, he told me. But because of a Vietnam War leg injury that still plagued him, he was too sore and tired to walk back to the shelter.
"Couldja give me a ride?" he asked.
"Uh, well, I'm sorry, I don't think so."
"I'll pay you," he said, opening his wallet. "Look, I have money."
"I'd rather not; I'm really sorry, I've gotta run."
He pulled out a small paper bag from the front pocket of his jeans. I had no idea what he was doing, but I clenched my car keys defensively, imagining guns and knives. I checked on my son, who was singing - singing! - the Barney cleanup song.
My heart hammered as the man fished a wad of tissue paper from the bag. Carefully, he unwrapped the paper and placed a tiny porcelain figurine in his palm, holding it up gently, reverently, like a wise man bearing myrrh.
"See this tiny deer?" he said. "Right now, it's the only thing my wife has to her name."
I gave the man a ride.
Everyone who hears this believes there should have been no dilemma: Under no circumstances should you let a stranger in your car. In theory, I agree. But the humanity in the little gift he carried defied the rules - and my ability to follow them.
The ride turned out to be the longest three minutes of my life. We talked about the weather and kids. But as we got closer to the shelter, he began to rant about how no one respects war veterans. I nodded and drove faster; my son continued singing. I scanned intersections for somebody, anybody, who could identify our whereabouts later.
It was twilight when I pulled up to the shelter. To my enormous relief, the man opened the door and started to get out. A young girl wearing a pink sweatsuit ran up from the front porch. She hugged her dad like he'd just returned from a war. He turned back to me and said, "I meant what I said about the money."
"No, thanks, really," I said. I started to add something about how a woman and a child can't be too careful, along the lines of an apology for doubting him, but he nodded and limped away. As I drove home, still shaking, I made a mental note to warn my son about strangers. When he's old enough to understand, I might even tell him about the foolish risk I took giving the limping man a ride. I'd advise him to never do such a thing, of course.
But I'd have a hard time saying I wouldn't do it again, given the same set of odd circumstances. I only hope my son figures out his own Good Samaritan formula one day: part head, part heart - and enough intuition to discern the good guy from the bad.
* Beth Macy is a freelance writer and a writing instructor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.