The Thin Man

On the day I started my new job with the city of Denton, I noticed a look of nervous apprehension from a rawboned guy in an adjoining office. He thought he knew me, I guessed, but I couldn’t place him. Nodding politely, I went on into the computer room.

I was fortunate to have landed this job so far from my art degree. I needed it to complete my training for a field so new there were no schools for it. Fortunately, I knew one of their new programmers. Jim had previously worked for the university data processing center where I had been employed part-time as a student. He was a tall, blond man who wore western wear at a time when such attire was becoming increasingly less frequent in a modern Texas. Once, I overheard someone ask him why he dressed like a cowboy. “I come by it honestly,” he said, “I’m from Indiana.”

He wore his persona well, but it was his droll sense of humor that lured me into his office to chat.

Due to that friendship, he put in a good word for me. After completing a test assignment by the City’s Director of Data Processing, I was hired to be their next data control manager.

The City had squeezed its fledgling computer center into a space too small and too hot next to the ready room for the gas, electricity and water meter readers. We shared a short hall with the police department. Denton in the 1970s was not the big city.

One of the meter readers, the skinny man I saw on my first day, eyed me anxiously for a couple of months. I remained amicable with him as with all my new coworkers. Eventually, he spoke to me.

“Were you a friend of Rick Hansen on Bell Street?” he asked.

“Still am,” I replied.

“I thought I recognized you.” He paused. “You ever?”

He let the question hang.

In that space, I recalled who he was.

“No,” I replied.

The tension in his face that had marked our previous encounters relaxed into a gentle smile. He gave me a firm nod that indicated gratitude and respect.

Several years earlier, my buddy Rick and I were recovering from work on a stiflingly hot summer’s afternoon. We had just returned to his place after a grueling day framing a new house. Well, Rick was doing the framing; I was merely filling in as a helper on his crew. There was no cloud cover, no wind, and no reason to do anything but sit very still in the path of a window fan. That and nurse a cold beer, which we were doing to the best of our ability.

The meager breeze from the fan was beginning to revive us, but we were still shiny with sweat. Too tired to talk, my friend cranked up Fleetwood Mac on the stereo.

There we sat until the sound of a family dispute drifted in over the music. We looked at each other and shrugged. A hot day, a tiny house and kids home from the summer; these things were bound to happen.

Then it got louder. And louder. Suddenly a barefoot boy in shorts and a t-shirt burst through Rick’s screen door. Tears were streaming down his face.

“Mommy needs help! Daddy’s got a gun an’ says he’s gonna kill his self!

Rick and I jumped up and ran out his door with the kid just ahead of us. The boy stopped outside and pointed at the open front door to his home. Rick darted through first with me close behind. The living room was empty. My friend went toward the room on our left while I shot into the one on the right.

I found the action. Dead ahead of me in front of a dresser, a scrawny man held a rifle to his head. A woman next to the bed fluttered her hands in frantic desperation. Without breaking stride, I took the poor guy down with a flying tackle. He never saw me coming. Not a second later, Rick was on top of us, controlling the direction of the gun barrel with both hands.

Spittle shooting from his mouth, the man howled in anguish: “Why’d you do this? I’m no good to anyone!”

Rick, stronger than the despondent man and I put together, wrested the rifle from his hands and stood up. “What the hell is going on here?” he demanded.

“I can’t provide for my family!” cried the man.

I still had him pinned to the ground.

“Oh, Ricky, thank you,” said the woman through her tears. She came over and touched me gently on the back. “Please don’t hurt him.”

The man went limp and just lay there crying after I got off of him. He was as miserable as anyone I had ever seen. Rick kneeled on the floor and tried to reassure him.

As I stood, the woman hugged me. She was sticky with sweat and worry. “He lost his job, and nobody’s hiring,” she moaned,” We’re behind on everything.”

At our feet, Rick was softly repeating, “It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right,” as a tear slid down his face.

I, too, was misting up.

Without revealing this event, Rick and I collected donations for the distressed family from our circle of poor students and young musicians. Rick also spoke with their mutual landlord about cutting his neighbors a little slack. The landlord, an old man barely getting by himself, agreed to help.

A week after I assured the meter reader that his past troubles would stay in the past, he walked into the computer room as I stood waiting for a printout. He handed me a blue paper folder with pockets. Inside one sleeve were some promotional pictures cut out of a magazine for a movie called The Thin Man. The other opening held two cassette tapes containing the soundtrack to the film. He recorded them himself, with commercials partly cut out, from an afternoon matinee on television.

“You will love this,” he said.

He was right. Listening to it that night, I was quickly taken in by the fast, funny patter from William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. A fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was intrigued by the intricate plot and Nick’s end game.

A few years later, as video rental stores began popping up, I bought a VHS player. Finally, I could not just hear, but see the movie in its silvery perfection. What’s more, not only did I discover the rest of the Thin Man series, I got hooked on vintage cinema in general. These old films became for me both a respite from a troubling world and a way to understand it.

To this day, I find myself amazed and a little humbled that this remarkable, considerate gift from a thin man came to me merely because I exhibited a moment’s worth of unthinking kindness followed by a little thoughtful discretion.