He could have been a nut, these days it is hard to tell. As I drove into the Wal-Mart, I noticed he was gesticulating to a couple of people in an aisle of the parking lot. It was a humid summer day and he was wearing a long-sleeved white dress shirt and tie; his sleeves were crisply rolled up. The sharp crease in his khakis corresponded with the shiny gloss of what appeared to be spit-shined shoes.
I parked at the farthest end of his aisle so I could walk by and investigate (snoop). As I approached, the two women he had been talking to turned and walked toward the store. The tinkle of dropped coins echoed toward me and a toddler pulled away from one of the women and bent to retrieve a copper flash of light, a penny.
As he turned toward me, my "shields" went up and I went on full alert. At my age you learn to pay attention in parking lots, I have been accosted for many things from panhandled cash to the handle for a tire jack (just the handle, she had a spare and a jack).
He did not look like a nut. He was wearing a nametag that said "Survey Manager" and his conservative haircut and clean-shaven appearance suggested he might even be the store manager. He looked at me and raised his voice just enough to allow for the distance between us. "May I offer you some money for the answers to a few survey questions?"
As a retiree on a fixed (read limited) income I am always asking the silent question of any survey I get in the mail or over the phone, "If my opinion is so valuable, where's my check?" His hand went to an old-fashioned coin changer hanging on his belt; three rapid clinks dropped coins into his hand. He offered me three pennies so shiny they had to be new. I opened my palm.
He pulled a pen loose from the clipboard he was holding, "There are just three questions and they only require a yes or no response. There are no wrong answers and I'll send any reply you want forwarded to Wal-Mart corporate. Okay?"
"Sure, fire away."
While my intuition totaled the man's posture, appearance, and haircut and I realized I was looking at a G.I., holding a clipboard at the position of attention.
"On your way into Wal-Mart today would you be willing to grab a shopping cart and return it to the store for one penny?"
"For two pennies?"
I paused, a trick question. In for a penny, in for two?
"If the Wal-Mart greeter offered you a pair of tokens that could be redeemed at the checkout for two cents cash or for a three cent contribution to a charity, which would you choose?"
"Two cents cash to me." Remember, retiree.
"Thank you for participating in this survey."
"You're welcome. Why three cents?"
He smiled, "I calculated how much time it would take to answer the three questions and multiplied it to figure out an hourly rate. Eight or nine seconds for three answers at a penny a question works out to about what a Wal-Mart employee makes per hour."
I bounced the numbers in my head, "Say twelve dollars per hour?" He nodded. For some reason I asked, "Does your boss know you are out here doing this?"
He smiled, "My boss does, but I don't work for Wal-Mart."
"You don't work for Wal-Mart?"
He shook his head and simultaneously raised his hand, "I can't tell you."
"Did you get this approved by anybody at Wal-Mart?"
Again, a head shake. He said, "You know that old saw about getting permission versus seeking forgiveness?"
I grinned at him, "I do… But why? What do you hope to accomplish?"
"Do you know how much Wal-Mart gave to charity last year?"
"One point three billion dollars. Do you want me to tell you how much money the taxpayers contributed to Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing for Wal-Mart employees?"
I shook my head. "Billions I bet."
He nodded. "I had a great boss one time who said if you discovered the cure for cancer or the way to eliminate air pollution, just do it. Don't tell anybody; don't call a press conference, just go fix the problem."
I offered him a handshake and palmed the three pennies into his grip. "Spend that three cents on somebody else, you convinced me."
He smiled, "Thanks. Unbelievably, this happens all day long. I never knew it would be so hard giving money away."
I chuckled and started toward the entrance. As I got to the end of the aisle, I grabbed a cart to take in with me and looked back over my shoulder. He was already deep in conversation with a young couple, slowly changing people's thinking.
A newbie writer, author of "Lynching at the Legion" (Fear of Monkeys, Internet) and "Shadow of a Doubt" (Half Way Down the Staircase, Internet), who is currently completing a science fiction novel that responds to the question, "Are we alone in the Universe?" with an unusual theory. As a failed Quaker who joined the United States Marine Corp and swapped his sergeant's stripes for a pacifist's medallion, Whit writes about the confusion we all sometimes feel about the world around us.