The Thin Man

On the day I started my new job with the City of Denton’s Data Processing Department, 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 blessed to have landed this job so far from my art degree. I needed it to complete my self-guided training to become a computer artist, a field so new there were no schools for it.

Fortunately, I knew a programmer who had just been hired by the city. 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 less common in a modernizing 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 department’s director, I was hired to be the data control manager.

The fledgling computer center I reported to was squeezed into a space too small and too hot. It sat next to even smaller ready room for the electricity, gas and water meter readers.

One of the meter readers, the skinny man I saw on my first day, eyed me anxiously for a couple of months. Whenever we crossed paths, I nodded amiably but had no real interactions with him. I considered his attitude puzzling but harmless.

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 of me filling in as his helper while he, a master carpenter, framed a new house.

We were cooked by the sun, physically exhausted and shiny with sweat. 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.

Too tired to talk, we cranked up Fleetwood Mac on the stereo.

There we sat until the sound of a family dispute from next door 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 red shorts and a t-shirt burst through the screen door. Tears poured down his face.

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

We leaped to our feet and ran out the door right behind the kid. He stopped outside his home, pointing at the open front door. Rick darted through first with me tight on his tail. The living room was empty, so my friend went straight ahead toward the kitchen. I dashed into the bedroom on the right.

Dead ahead of me, in front of a dresser, a scrawny white man with a bright red face held a hunting 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 between us and jumped to his feet. “What the hell is going on here?” he bellowed.

The man mewled: “I can’t provide for my family!” 

“Oh, Ricky, thank you,” said the woman through her tears.

She touched me gently on the back. “Please don’t hurt him.”

Somewhat dazed by the impact and struggle, I remembered I still had the man pinned to the ground. He went limp and just lay there sobbing as I lifted myself off of him. As I rose, the distraught woman rushed to hug me. She felt sticky with sweat and worry.

“He lost his job, and nobody’s hiring,” she moaned, “We’re behind on everything.”

Rick kneeled on the floor next to the miserable man, 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, misted up.

Without mentioning the attempted suicide, Rick and I collected donations for the distressed family from our circle of financially strained students, musicians, and craftsmen. In just a few days we gathered enough to keep their utilities on for another couple of months. Rick also spoke with their mutual landlord about cutting his neighbors a little slack. The landlord, who turned out to be that sweet old man with a great garden at the end of the lane, agreed to help.

Rick’s neighbors thanked him for the intervention and assistance. However, wracked by guilt and shame, the family kept to themselves after that. My friend understood their pain, but he was disappointed that they barely spoke to him for the rest of the time they lived next door. I, along with a few of the other donors, inquired about their welfare, but Rick could only shrug helplessly in reply.

A week after I assured the meter reader that his former troubles would stay in the past, he strode into the computer room looking healthy and happy. Handing me a blue paper folder with pockets, he said, “You will love this!”

Inside one sleeve were several promotional pictures cut out of a newsprint magazine for a movie called The Thin Man. The other opening held two audio cassettes containing the soundtrack to the film. He recorded them himself, with commercials partly cut out, from the Sunday afternoon movie on television.

I guess I looked a little confused, so he repeated himself. “Trust me, you will love this.”

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 detective novels, from G. K. Chesterton to Dashiell Hammett, I was intrigued by the intricate plot and Nick’s end game.

As video rental stores began popping up a few years later, I bought a VHS player. Finally, I could 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.

Ten years after that, I found Turner Classic Movies on cable television. Heaven! In the ensuing decades, these old films became both a respite from a troubling world and a way to understand it.

Through all those years, I remained aware that these cultural treasures came to me solely because I managed to manifest a moment’s worth of unthinking kindness, plus a little thoughtful discretion, to help someone I did not know.

To this day, with every viewing, I recall that thin man’s remarkable gift. Moreover, I am reminded of the man I aspire to be.