The Nadir of the Thin Man

This memoir is about when I helped ensure that a man was able to maintain his dignity in a time of crisis and how it unexpectedly enriched my life. Some names and locations have been changed to shield an identity. The image at left is a poster for The Thin Man from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.


On the day I started my new job with the City of Denton, I noticed a look of anxious recognition from a lean man in the adjoining ready room for the utility meter readers. He thought he knew me, I guessed, but I couldn’t place him. After a polite greeting to everyone in the room, I went on into the Data Processing Department.

For the next couple of months, the slim meter reader eyed me with nervous apprehension. Though puzzled by his behavior, I tried to remain amicable. Out of caution, I also kept myself a little distant. This was a drama I didn’t fully understand.

One morning the man, taut with intent, blocked my path to the computer room.

“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 lull, I recalled who he was. “No,” I said.

The tension in his face relaxed into a gentle grin. Without a word, he gave me a firm nod that indicated gratitude and respect as he stepped aside to let me pass.

Several years earlier, I filled in as a helper to my buddy Rick as he framed a new house. After work one day, we were attempting to recover from our labors and a summer sun that seemed to fill the entire sky. There was no cloud cover, no wind, and no reason to do anything but sprawl in the path of a window fan.

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

There we lay 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 small house, kids out of school, 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 hopped to our feet, bolted out of the room, and followed the speedy little kid across the yard. 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 forged straight ahead toward the kitchen. I veered 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 chin. A woman in a worn-out calico dress stood next to the bed, fluttering her hands in frantic desperation.

Without breaking stride, I nailed the poor guy while pushing the barrel away from his head. Within a second, Rick was on top of us.

Spittle shooting from his mouth, the man howled in anguish: “Why’d you do this?”

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.

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

Somewhat dazed by the impact and struggle, her touch reminded me I still had the forlorn man pinned to the ground. He went limp and just lay there sobbing as I stood up.

The distraught woman gave me a hug. She felt sticky with sweat and worry.

“Lost his job. Nobody’s hiring,” she moaned, “We’re behind on everything.”

Rick kneeled on the floor next to the exhausted fellow, who looked up at him and said, “I can’t provide for my family.”

“It’s going to be all right,” Rick said as he pulled the man to his feet. “It’s going to be all right.”

I watched a tear slide down Rick’s tanned face before the room became blurry for me, too.

Without mentioning the attempted suicide, Rick and I collected donations for the distressed family from our circle of students, musicians, and craftsmen. All were financially strained, but generous. 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. His landlord, who turned out to be the sweet old guy with a great garden at the end of the lane, agreed to help.

My friend’s neighbors thanked him for the intervention and assistance, but afterward, they kept to themselves. Rick was disappointed that they barely spoke to him for the rest of the time they lived next door, but I think he understood.

A week after I assured the skinny meter reader that his former troubles would stay in the past, he marched into the computer room. He appeared more confident, maybe a little pleased with himself.

Presenting me a blue, kraft 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, with commercials mostly 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. As a fan of detective novels from G. K. Chesterton to Dashiell Hammett, the film’s intricate plot and Nick’s end game intrigued me.

When video rental stores began popping up after a few years, I bought a portable TV and a VHS player. Finally, I could see the movie in its silvery perfection. What’s more, the meter reader’s remarkable gift continued to enrich my life as I discovered the rest of the Thin Man series and explored other vintage cinema.

Twenty years later, I found Turner Classic Movies on cable television. Absolute heaven! Over the ensuing years, these old films became both a respite from a troubling world and a way to understand it.

They also continue to remind me of how little effort it took to help a thin man in crisis. For that matter, how simple it is to come to the aid of most people in need. Just a moment of unthinking kindness. A bit of thoughtful discretion.