From the Book:
A Nickel's Worth of Happiness
Bill Phillips was a big bear of a man with a deep somewhat
gravelly voice, who at first impression appeared to be as gruff
as he looked. He was in truth a very gentle man, a dedicated
family man who doted on his grandchildren. He was our primary
import inspector, knew his way around the waterfront, and exhibited
a depth of knowledge second to none, which was coupled with good,
common sense. Working with him, as I did for several weeks, was
a learning experience which was always pleasant if not fun.
Now I need to emphasize his modicum of common sense. When
confronted with a situation, he always took his time to weigh
the information before acting. That's why his behavior on this
particular evening came as such a surprise to me.
While many of us took the bus to and from work to save the
downtown parking fees, Bill invariably drove. He lived not too
far from me so on the weeks that I had to travel, I would ask
him to swing by my house and pick me up so I didn't have to leave
my car parked in town while I was gone.
This particular occurrence took place on a cold Friday evening
early in January. I had been working out of the Norfolk Inspection
Station all week, so I was going to ride home with Bill. The
public parking lot was about four blocks east of our office on
Gay Street and was located in what at that time was the tenderloin
area. On our way to and from the parking lot we generally would
be approached by a half dozen or so panhandlers asking for change
to get a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup or a sandwich. Bill's
response to these pleas was to offer to buy the derelict a meal
at one of the nearby diners. I never doubted the sincerity of
his offer and fully expected and accepted the possibility of
a detour to a local restaurant at any time. I never witnessed
his offer accepted.
Which brings me to the matter at hand.
We were about two blocks from Bill's car when he stopped suddenly;
he had been walking beside me on my right next to the storefronts
and doorways. When I looked back, he was hunched over looking
down. I turned and walked back to where he had stopped.
His large frame was bent slightly at the waist, and he was
listening to a small waif of a girl wearing only a light dress
and a pair of broken down shoes that offered no protection from
the slush in which she was standing. There was an imploring look
on her pretty little, but dirty face. And there was a pleading
tone in her voice as she spoke.
I heard, "Please, mister, just a nickel so I can buy
my little brother some candy. He's sick, and I want to do somethin'
nice for him. But I ain't got any money and momma don't have
any to give me either." The way she delivered her story
was enough to make a grown man cry. Bill looked a little like
Then, he recovered sufficiently to say, "Little girl,
you hadn't ought to be doing this. You hadn't ought to be asking
strangers for money."
"PLEASE MISTER!" She began tugging at the seam of
his trousers. "Please Mister! " she said again only
in a more subdued voice.
Bill straightened up, a stern look on his face and a firm
note in his voice. "If I give you a nickel, you'll just
ask someone else for another, and then you'll start asking for
more money, and the next thing you know you'll be walking the
streets doing nasty things for money and that will be your ruination.
I don't want to be the one that starts that happening."
Two large tears traced their way down her cheeks leaving streaks
in the grime on her face. She let go of his pant leg and turned
away from him. Then, she turned back and said in a voice choked
by a sob and barely audible. "Please, mister."
Bill reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change,
sorted through it, extracted a quarter, and gave it to her. "You've
got to promise me that you will NEVER! NEVER! ask another stranger
"Yes, sir." she murmured and turned away from him,
head bowed, and slowly stepped her way up the stoop and through
the door that opened to the stairs to the tenements above.
Bill turned away and began walking briskly toward the parking
lot. I stayed behind for a moment and, unless my ears deceived
me, as the door swung shut I thought I heard the sound of little
feet skipping up the stairs and the faint strains of a song being
sung in a child's voice.
I caught up with Bill. He looked pleased with himself. "I
think I nipped that in the bud," he said. "Don't you?"
I didn't give voice to what I was thinking which was, nothing
succeeds like success and damn that girl's good!