A sizzling summer sun hangs over the small North Carolina town. Afternoon shoppers seek the cool recesses of air-conditioned stores and eateries. No dog barks; no bird flies.
Sidewalks and streets reflect the sun’s rays in shimmering waves, making the surface of the town seem almost water-like.
I sit just inside the front door of a small store wishing for a breeze, any breeze. Above the entrance hangs a sign that reads, “Community Service Center.” Business is slow. It’s been an hour since anyone ventured in to browse through the pre-owned clothes hanging in neat rows throughout the small establishment.
My teenage mind struggles in the heat, trying to remember the moment when I’d agreed to watch the store. “Community service? No problem,” I'd said. “I’ll be happy to keep an eye on things next Tuesday. Can't do enough for our poor and needy. Why, it’s my Christian duty.”
Nobody had said it was going to be so hot!
Open for Business?
My thoughts are jolted back to the present by the sound of someone stopping in front of me. “You open for business, young man?” His words seem more a reminder than a question.
“Yes sir!” I announce, untangling myself from the chair and jumping to my feet. “What can I do for you?”
The visitor walks toward the first row of colorful clothes hanging on the rack. “I need a new coat.”
“You’re in luck,” I say, guiding him to the rear of the store. “We have a great selection. Not much call for coats just now. You can have the whole section to yourself. Take your time."
I watch him begin to slowly sort through the garments, carefully scrutinizing each one. His rough, work-worn hands appraise seams and stitches, mentally comparing the workmanship against his personal checklist of requirements for a new coat.
The caked mud and clay clinging to his torn shoes and the deep weathered lines in his dark-skinned face reveal that he’s a field worker, rotating from farm to farm, picking, planting, harvesting, bending in the hot sun day after endless day. He’s probably done this backbreaking work since childhood, I think to myself.
Searching for the Right Color
“Have anything in blue?” he asks. “My wife likes blue.”
His question takes me by surprise. For some reason I’d always assumed that poor people didn’t care what color of clothes they wore. “I think I saw a blue one this morning,” I say, looking at the man. “Let me help you find it.”
I start to sort through the garments. Suddenly, for the first time, I really see the coats on the rack. Most of the colors are faded and threads worn. I become uneasy as I realize that this man wants a coat he can wear so his wife will think he’s handsome and say so. This garment will be his label to the world, his statement to society.
The man has moved across the room and is picking through the items on the bargain table. I study him for a long moment.
From deep within me, an anger begins to rise. Why does this man have to be poor? Why does anyone have to depend on the cast-off labels of others to form their own identity? That bargain table contains things that no one wants anymore—a chipped teacup, a battered picture frame, an umbrella that struggles to stay open. Why must he depend on rejected treasures to add meaning to his world?
“Did you find one? My wife will be so pleased.” He looks at me expectantly.
"See what you think of this," I say, holding out the best blue coat I can find.
The man slips his arms into the garment and adjusts the lapel. Turning to the left and then to the right, he eyes himself in the broken mirror hanging on the wall. “Hey, this is pretty nice,” he says with genuine excitement. “Whatta ya think? Does it fit OK?”
He turns toward me with an unbelievable look of satisfaction on his face.
My mind can’t form an answer. I open my mouth, but words refuse to sound. The coat is old and worn. Some well-meaning, church-going, hymn-singing man wore the life out of that garment, and then with great humility offered it to those who must live without.
“It seems to be the right size, doesn’t it?” he continues, glancing at the mirror again. “My wife can make some adjustments if she has the right color thread.”
I turn away as unwelcome tears sting my eyes. In my pocket rattles enough loose change to buy this man three of those old coats. He’s worked hard and has come to me to buy a garment that I wouldn’t be seen in. “How much?” he asks. “I think it’s just what I’ve been looking for.”
“The price is written on that tag attached to the sleeve,” I say, trying to control my emotions.
“Oh yes, let’s see, says two dollars. Yeah, I think I’ve got that much.”
The man reaches into the pocket of his soiled and tattered trousers and draws out assorted coins and a crinkled bill. He places his wealth on the table and starts to count.
I want to scream, “Mister, take all the clothes you want! Take the red coats and the black coats. Take some pants and shirts too. They’re all free today, no charge! Don’t be poor anymore. Please, Mister, stop depending on what other people reject to dress yourself, to furnish your house, to label your life. It shouldn’t take all you have just to buy an old coat that someone else has worn out. Use your money to get your wife something nice, something special. It’s not fair; it’s just not fair!”
"Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, two dollars. Yup, just enough. Oh, this is wonderful. I’ve needed a new coat since last fall. Here you are, young man, two bucks. Thanks.”
I take his money and watch him walk to the front of the store. At the door he turns. “I’ll be back next summer,” he says. “Thanks again for your help.”
In that moment a new and wonderful truth begins to light the dark recesses of my mind. Value is not measured by cost. An old coat is a new coat when you’ve spent everything you have to make it yours.
“Mister,” I say. “Your blue coat, it’s very nice. Looks good on you.”
He smiles and walks into the afternoon heat.
Charles Mills, author, radio show host, and media producer, has published several books, including Religion in the Real World, Refreshed Parables, and Surprising Nature.