The Decency Factor

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It’s not all bad news out there. The hate-stream does not slosh over every social interaction, though sometimes it seems that way. In the midst of our current crisis there are abundant stories of bravery and heroism on the front lines, and decency and kindness all around.

One such story went viral. A FedEx delivery man brings a package to a doorstep. He sees a note that someone in the house has an auto-immune disorder, so please leave packages outside.

The fellow then goes to his vehicle for some wipes, sanitizes the package, and leaves a little note of his own, ending with “Stay safe” and a smiley face.

My wife and I couldn’t help getting misty as we watched the video. That is the power of a kind act, especially when times are troubled.

In fiction, decency is often shown by way of the “pet the dog” scene. This is where the hero, in the midst of his own vexations, pauses to help someone weaker than himself. It’s an act of basic kindness and thus bonds us even more strongly with the Lead.

I’ll give you two examples. The first is from The Fugitive (1993). You know the story. Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run after escaping a prison bus on the way to Death Row. Kimble was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. It was a one-armed man who did it, and Kimble is now in a race against time to find him.

At one point Kimble poses as a hospital janitor so he can access the prosthetics records. As he’s slipping out of the hospital he finds himself waylaid by traffic on the trauma floor.

As he waits for a chance to move he notices a little boy on a gurney, groaning. From the look on Kimble’s face we know he wants to help that boy. He’s a doctor! That’s what he does! But he can’t without giving himself away. A nurse gives a cursory look at the chest x-ray, calling out that the kid is okay.

The supervising doctor comes over, sees Kimble just standing there, and asks him to wheel the kid down to an observation room. So off Kimble goes with the gurney.

As he does, he asks the boy where it hurts. He slips the x-ray from its envelope and holds it up to the light.

He determines that the boy needs immediate surgery. So on the elevator he changes the boy’s orders and takes him to the operating room, turning him over to a surgeon who gets the boy in for the help he needs.

Kimble saved a boy’s life at the risk of being found out. The filmmakers use it for just that purpose. The doctor on the trauma floor saw Kimble looking at the film. She catches up to him and confronts him. Not satisfied with his evasions, she grabs his ID badge and calls for Security.

Thus, Kimble’s “pet the dog” moment has gotten him into worse trouble. That’s using it to the max.

My second example is from Casablanca (where so many great moments come from!) As you know, the movie is about a bitter American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) who is allowed to run a café/saloon in this Morocco burg because he’s seen as neutral and uninterested in the war that rages around the world. Rick keeps telling people, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Rick’s Café is packed nightly with refugees making surreptitious deals to get out of Casablanca. Louis, the French police captain who has local control (with Nazi permission), uses the Café to get gambling kickbacks and women. He identifies desperate young couples who need exit visas but don’t have the money to pay for them. Louis then approaches the wife and offers her the papers gratis…in return for sleeping with him.

So in the middle of the swirling plot a young wife asks for Rick’s advice. Her husband is at the roulette table, trying to win the money they need for the visas. But he’s losing. Louis has made his pitch to the wife and she now wants to know if he’ll keep his word. Rick, with a disgusted look, says, “He always has.” She presses Rick, asking him, as a man, if someone loved him very much and did a “bad thing” to ensure his happiness, could he forgive her for that bad thing? Rick, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris, says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.” He gets up and leaves, telling the wife that things “may work out.”

But then he goes to the gambling room and spots the husband, who is down to his last chips. Rick tells him to place them on 22. The croupier sees what’s going on and sets the wheel so the ball lands on 22. Rick tells the husband to let it ride, and the ball comes up on 22 again. Rick tells the husband to “Cash it in and don’t come back.”

This pet-the-dog moment is observed by Rick’s headwaiter, but also by Louis, who objects to Rick interfering with his “little romances.” This is potential trouble for Rick, because he has just “stuck his neck” out for some refugees, making Louis suspicious of his true intentions.

We don’t need to do any psychological deep dive to understand why the pet-the-dog beat is so powerful. We are naturally moved by acts of decency. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.” It is part, I would argue, of the true American character in times of crisis.

We can show that in our fiction by way of a pet-the-dog beat. Even more important, we can show it in our lives by acting decently, the way a FedEx delivery man did a few days ago.

What act of kindness have you observed or heard about lately? In the past, what gesture of decency made an impact on you?

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42 thoughts on “The Decency Factor

  1. Excellent post as per usual. And timely too.

    I’ve been thinking my protag reads a tad too dry, a tad too focused, too self-absorbed. I’ve already included two pet-the-cat beats but only as backstory. Now I think he could use one upfront in Act I, as action, not reminiscence, for extra punch.

    I was a college student then. All-nighters were fairly common. If I’m remembering this right, the usual print shops were closed. Somehow, miraculously, someone mentioned a private studio. I ended up going there, looking, no doubt, like an unshaven hobo. They were a brother and a sister. They printed, re-printed, took all the time in the world, like I had been their top customer for years. They offered me snacks. They undercharged me like I’d never been undercharged before. Or since.

    I never went back there. Just didn’t want to tarnish that moment of unconditional kindness.

    • NR, you reminded me of the original Kinko’s in Isla Vista, which I went to many a time in college. Its selling point was being open 24/7. They were very kind to students on NoDoz.

  2. The other day while I was at work the local firefighters and police did a parade around our hospital with lights and sirens. All of us in the offfice went outside and waved back. There weren’t many of us as most of our units are closed and we’re all working reduced hours. It was a sweet gesture and much appreciated.

  3. When I was writing Remaking Morgan (after taking your workshop at Colorado Gold), I was looking for a ‘pet the dog’ moment and I ended up with … a dog.

    In our neighborhood, we have a “Cookie Fairy” who leaves homemade cookies on people’s doorsteps.

    Our UPS and FedEx carriers bring biscuits for Feebie. But they’ve always done that.

  4. Thanks for a great and timely post.

    Recent act of kindness: A local retired painter, with a supply of masks, offered them to office-based primary care physicians who were having trouble finding masks.

    Gesture that made an impact on me: As a married grad-school student, with no job and my wife unemployed, we were down to our last pennies. Lots of prayers went up, and when the money was gone, an envelope showed up in student mail. A $50 bill. No note. No way of tracing. No admissions from friends. I know that money was sent by an angel.

  5. The “pet the dog” beat also works for antagonists. 😉

    Living in a small town has its benefits. Even during a time of crisis folks stop to lend a hand, whether that be reaching an item on the top grocery shelf for the vertically challenged (like me) or holding the door for the person behind you. Acts of kindness happen every day, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We’re truly blessed. Local businesses have gone above and beyond to secure PPE for front line workers and to raise money for food banks. The Patriots even sent PPE to New York (during football season we’re rivals). The next day, the New York Post’s headline: “Thank you, Patriots! Something we thought we’d never say.” Hahaha.

  6. We heard just last night on the news that someone, or several someones, have come up with a novel (pun intended…) idea for holding a mask in place. Having worked in the medical field for the last 30+ years, I know about those masks that first responders have to wear for hours on end. Pretty soon, you’re longing for an earectomy.

    A piece of soft plastic fashioned to hold both elastic pieces at the back of the head, instead of looped over the ears. And, of course, offered at no cost (I think I heard that) to hospitals and clinics, etc.

    American ingenuity meets a crisis.

    Also, in our town, I can’t believe how many people are stepping up for their neighbors, doing everything from delivering groceries and medicines to the elderly, to mowing lawns and washing cars. It’s incredible. Gives me hope for humanity.

    And on a more up close and personal note, I had a birthday yesterday. Woot-hoot! Thought I was done with those, but my Texas daughter had other ideas.

    She called me yesterday afternoon and told me to jump on FB Messenger on my phone. Soon, I was on a video call, laughing hysterically with my nephew in Montana, said daughter in Texas and her four children, and my daughter in Oregon. It was the highlight of my year, I think. We can’t get together, but we can. They, from their respective places hundreds of miles apart, sang happy birthday to me. It was a beautiful cacophony of noise to this musician’s ears. And the kindness of my family put it together for me.

    Can’t beat it… 🙂

    • Lovely, Deb. I was in the big quake of ’94 here in L.A. In my neighborhood, all the cinderblock walls came down. From my backyward i could see every other backyard on the block! But we came together to make sure the gas lines were off, people had water, and so on. We got through it. We’ll get through this.

  7. My town and my facebook page is filled with negativity and sarcasm, so it’s nice to read all your stories.

    On a Pet the dog note: I’ve been wracking my mind since last year to figure out why I don’t like Captain Marvel, and just last week I realized it’s because there is zero pet the dog moments. She’s a focused, uptight, fighting machine who doesn’t even take a moment to smile at the rogue cat that shows up. I know most of you don’t watch marvel, but I wanted to share this with people who understand.

  8. Now, more than ever, decency makes all the difference. I’ve been struck by all the folks sewing cloth masks for medical workers as well as for other people. My wife spent a week sewing over fifty masks for her brother’s medical clinic, and she has plenty of company, people doing this all over our country.

  9. After my Dad had been transferred from Phoenix to Oklahoma, I ended up graduating from a much smaller high school than my Alma Mater in Phoenix.

    Our football team had a half-dozen African-American players.

    So after football season, our school’s Quarterback Club decided to send us to see the University of Arkansas play SMU in Fayetteville. We were set to leave Friday morning, drive to Fayetteville, stay in a church camp that night, and attend the game the next day. (Why the University of Arkansas? This is no kidding. The prospect of getting 52 tickets for our players and coaches to a University of Oklahoma game would not have been possible until about 1990, they said.)

    So the morning we were to leave, everyone on the team except five of the six African American players showed up to go. The one player who did show up had just moved to town from Los Angeles. He was not ever going to play more than high school football. He was just a nice , chubby kid who could be taught to run into the guy opposite him on the line. He could tell a joke and turn away from the racist humor that guys from Oklahoma were liable to use in 1960. Of course, in those days, rather than use his name, team guys began to call him Calhoun, after the attorney in Amos ‘n’ Andy. His real name was, well, for now, Markle.

    So we left. Drove all day in eight school district station wagons, arrived at the camp, then went to dinner at a barbecue cafeteria. None of us thought anything about the implication until our entire team, coaches included, walked in the door of the cafeteria.

    With no warning, all 250 Arkansans in the place turned and looked straight at Markle. None of the looks were kindly looks, despite the huge numbers of my Southern Baptist brethren who lived and attended churches in the state. On that late Saturday afternoon, many Arkansans still concluded that segregation was morally right in the sight of God. The year 1960 was three years before Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” speech.

    Markle only then realized what was going on. Our football team and coaches, yours truly included, did what people did in 1960 in the South when faced with a racial situation. We kept our mouth shut and did nothing.

    All except for Gary. (Because he is now gone, I won’t give his last name.) Gary was a halfback, not big of stature, on a team that ran the Split-T. That means he was not huge, was fast. In addition to his physical attributes–or lack of them–Gary had a sense of duty and character that reminds me now of Pat Tillman, an Arizona State University and Arizona Cardinals football player who joined the Army after 911, and was killed in a friendly fire accident.

    “Hey, Markle,” Gary called out, in a cafeteria full of people whose next move might well have been go out the back door and pick out clubs and bats from the stacks of wood meant only for barbecuing meat, back there. The restaurant’s patrons were starting to seethe. People having friendly conversations suddenly looked angry, mean. Years later, I realized that their looks and manners were probably very like those of KKK Klansmen intent on lynching or dragging someone around behind a pickup.

    Markle, frightened and paranoid, made his way up to stand by Gary. Gary put his arm around Markle’s shoulders and began to talk to him in friendly tones, a smile on his lips, a chuckle as he spoke.

    Suddenly, the restaurant crowd was again friendly, waiting in line to get ribs, beans, collard greens, ‘n’ cornbread. Gary’s moment of bravery and kindness to Markle, with no help from his teammates or mentors, defused a potentially dangerous situation.

    It is a moment that both inspires me, and shames me.

  10. I worked in FedEx’s IT department for years before I retired. Going “above and beyond” is part of the culture there. I’ve heard many stories of delivery truck drivers doing kind and even heroic things for the customer.

    I have a friend who recently ordered a “virtual” meal from a local restaurant and gave them a $100 tip. There was no actual food involved. She says she’s saved so much money from *not* eating out that she feels compelled to share it with the people who have served her in the past.

  11. Spray-painted on a plastic drop cloth, and strung on the gate to our satellite staff parking lot two weeks ago was a message from the neighbors who surround that lot, thanking my fellow FRONT LINE healthcare workers – “Thank you Grady Workers” – even though I’m considered “essential,” my work is so far behind the scenes I feel/felt a bit guilty being considered worthy of standing in their shoe-coverings… Still, it meant/means more than the big professional billboards and TV commercials… and as such, I’ve taken it to heart to thank not just those folks across the street from my office, but others on my walk to/from the truck – police officers, bus drivers, truck/delivery drivers, State and City workers keeping things moving and/or looking nice, cashiers at the store or gas station… and to remind them to be safe/be careful… I think actually “saying” it – hearing myself say it as well as knowing they know – is as affirming to me as I hope it is to them… Sometimes I notice a catch in my voice and/or a misting to my eyes when I consider their sacrifices and willingness to help, even in the “small” everyday things…
    In the same way, like here on TKZ, there’s the continuity of care from on-line and streaming professionals who are doing their part to help out that give me cause to thankfully pause…
    That said, thank you, Mr. B, Ms. Langley-Hawthorne, Ms. Burke, Ms. Coletta, Ms. Lilley, the Ms’s Parrish-es :), Mr. Gilstrap, Ms. Benedict, Ms. Dane, Ms. Viets, Mr. Hartlaub, Mr. Alpert, Ms. Odell… and all who post/comment…

    “Stay safe…”

    g

  12. We’d just moved into a new home when my second son was born. It was a new city for all of us, full of strangers – especially for my wife, who was about 10,000 miles from home (from Xi’an). My wife had a tough time recovering from her c-section and was laid up for nearly a week.
    .
    I have the kind of job that gets me home as late as 8pm. My wife had been making boiled noodles or frozen pizza for her and our older boy – a quick fix for dinner before returning to her recovery on the sofa. A woman showed up at our front door (I was at work when this happened, unfortunately). She brought a large plate of fried chicken and a bowl of baked beans. She was our neighbor. The following day, another neighbor brought us dinner. This went on for a full week. Three families from the neighborhood were cooking dinner for us.
    .
    I’ve lived in small towns most of my life and acts of kindness were not necessarily rare events, but this one really touched me. We were total strangers to each other and these people saw a way to help us. And they did.
    .
    I knew then that we’d moved to the right place.

  13. A more powerful version of “pet the dog” is “save the cat” where there’s a bit of danger involved. Nothing says I’m a hero than risking yourself to save someone’s pet. Preferably a cute kid’s pet. That’s a bit over the top for a harder mystery but perfect for a romance or a cozy.

    It’s amazing how a small touch of kindness or indifference can change a reader’s perspective on a character. Having a bad guy doing a good thing or a seeming good guy doing a minor bad thing is a great way to seed a major character shift later. The personality version of Chekhov’s gun.

    I am surrounded by good deeds. My area is heavy into manufacturing so the textile factories are now making masks, and the NASCAR people are using their plastic printers to make parts for breathing equipment and the clear masks for medical people. Fire trucks visit neighborhoods for parades for kids and hospitals to support fellow front-liners. The local news is almost totally about these good deeds which is a nice thing.

  14. We’re in lockdown here in Florida, like most people. One of my neighbors is part owner of a restaurant. They were forced to shut down. He brought over a carload of beautiful produce — the kind only restaurants can get — and asked us what we wanted. We each emailed him our order for potatoes, carrots, lettuce, etc., and he brought it to our condo. Bless him, we lived off it for two weeks.

    • I really feel for the restaurant biz, from the owners to the staff. It’s such a tough gig, so it takes hard work and quality to make a go of things…now this. My wife and I do the occasional GrubHub to help out locally.

  15. NB on your Casablanca example: The subplot with Annina and Jan, the Bulgarian couple, was specifically added to soften up the Rick character. Prior to that it was felt the character was too hard for audiences to stomach.

  16. Good post, Jim, and not a moment too soon. How is it that you tend to post about some of the problems I’m having in such a timely manner?! Must be Magic Writer Voodoo (TM). This has made me go back and have a look at my pet the dog moments. I think a few of them can cause some pretty major complications later down the track. It’s those complications that make things more interesting.

    Random acts of kindness? My sister is a pulmonary nurse in the US and several someones bought lunch for her and her team several days in a row as a way to say thank you for being an essential worker.

    We’re still in a very restrictive lockdown here in little New Zealand, so not much chance of going out anywhere, except to the grocery store! No takeaways are open, can’t go into the garage to get a pie or a doughnut, and all non-essential travel and visits are restricted.

    However, during Easter, since kids couldn’t go out and have Easter egg hunts, people in towns across New Zealand put up coloured-in Easter eggs in their windows, so parents could drive the kids around for a hunt without breaking their bubble. Our PM mentioned that the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were essential workers, not only to give people a light-hearted moment, but to show kids that our leaders are thinking about them as well during this time. Jacinda’s not my flavour of politics 100% of the time, but what she said gave my heart the warm fuzzies.

  17. “Who was that masked man?” A friend who’s a rigger for Broadway shows discovered that he had more than a dozen N95 masks. With COVID-19 raging all around him in New York City, he donated every single one of them to the local hospital.

    Here in Oregon, a local hospital was running out of masks and asked the community to sew 10,000 cloth masks as a stopgap. They provided the materials and instructions. There was an incredible traffic jam as everyone rushed to participate, and the mask kits were all handed out in ten minutes. A week later, when they asked for the completed masks, they got not the 10,000-ish they hoped for, but 10,900. A corona miracle!

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