I'm going to tell you a story. Actually, I'm going to tell you a story about telling a story. To further confuse matters, I'll let you know up front that all of what follows is true except for one detail that is a lie. The lie is born of good intentions but it's a lie nonetheless.
Excluding the lie, this story of telling a story is absolutely true and I'll tell it all as it happened.
Still with me? OK then. Let's go back to the summer break before my senior year of college. I was traveling abroad with my then-roommate, Jeff. We were in Lima, Peru, waiting to pay a tax because we'd supposedly stepped outside of the airport during our layover between flights.
The tax was bogus and we weren't going to pay it.
I'm sure things have changed since then, but, in the old Lima airport there was a common scam where a crowd would gather around foreigners exiting an airplane to trick them into walking outside. There was no tax for changing planes, but if you left the airport during a layover there was a twenty dollar airport re-entry tax. Scammers would trick foreigners into stepping outside and then split the tax with immigration officers who most likely pocketed the rest.
There were two other Americans on our flight into Lima. One was a backpacker who didn't look much older than myself… early 20s at best… and the other was an older Texan. I don't know for a fact he was from Texas, but the man had a cowboy hat and a cowboy accent. That was Texan enough for me.
The four of us hadn't been seated very far apart on the plane, which meant we weren't far apart as we made our way into the airport. We were immediately swept up in a crowd that moved quickly until one of us stepped outside through a large opening that looked as if it led to a hallway. We thought we were headed for baggage claim, but instead, the crowd instantly disbursed and we four Americans were left standing outside of the airport.
Only one of us actually stepped outside, but that was enough to bring over a security guard who escorted all four of us to a podium labeled "immigracion" where an officer waited to be paid a tax that may or may not have existed. Men from the crowd who'd scammed us were mulling around, pretending to not be waiting for their cut.
Jeff and I had an eight hour layover. As far as I was concerned we had nothing but time, and since I spoke Spanish fluently I was more than happy to fight this tax. The man from Texas was ahead of us, waiting for the backpacker who tried in vain to explain that he was late for his connecting flight. The immigration officer just kept pointing to the exit and repeating the words "Re-Enter Tax. Twenty dollar." The backpacker pleaded. He said he was broke and on his way home, but he said this in English which did no good. Jeff and I hadn't stepped out of the airport and I was intending to fight this bogus tax. Twenty bucks is a lot of money to a poor college student. I started to reconsider my position when I spotted another pair of officers approaching. The backpacker started to panic.
And that's when it happened.
This was many years ago, so clearly I am paraphrasing here, but it's one of those moments I remember as if it were yesterday. Soon, you'll understand why.
The Texan stepped forward, putting himself between the immigration podium and the backpacker. He placed his hand on the backpacker's shoulder and said "I owe somebody a favor kid so I'll pay your tax, but you and me, we're gonna make a deal first. Someday, you'll see somebody you don't know in a really bad spot and you'll repay me by helping that person out instead. When the time comes, don't even blink. Just step up and do it. The bigger a thing you do to help somebody out, the better. Do we have a deal?"
At this point, the approaching immigration officers pulled Jeff and I aside. I guess they'd seen that the other two foreigners had money, so, they focussed their attention on us.
In Spanish, I explained to the officers that my friend and I hadn't stepped out of the airport. I pointed to the scammers who were circling around waiting for their cut of the tax money and said that I was more than willing to stick around to fight it. I told them my friend and I aren't flying out of Lima for hours and that we had nothing but time.
I asked the officers if they wanted to hear a story. Who doesn't enjoy a good story?
The officers looked at each other, baffled, so I explained it again (in Spanish, of course). "Seriously, we're not in a hurry at all. We've got more time than we know what to do with and we didn't step outside that entryway. I'm a good story teller and I bet I can make you laugh. Would you like to hear a story?"
I don't know why the officers agreed to let me tell them a story, but they did, and so... I did.
I told this story (obviously it's in English here, but it's even better when told in Spanish). I ended up entertaining all three immigration officers as well as the crowd of scammers, and best of all, Jeff and I didn't have to pay the tax.
By this point, both the Texan and the backpacker were long gone. Did the backpacker ever repay the Texan's favor once he got back to the U.S.? Who could possibly know. But, the thing is... even though that favor wasn't done for me, I've repaid it several times. Each time, I told this story and made a similar deal with the person I was helping. I'd like to think that those people have done favors to repay me. I have no way of knowing if they did, but I can hope. Right? And I can even hope it keeps going forward, right? Hey, I know that's a corny thought but it's my corny thought and I like it.
Now, let's back up a bit. The very first thing I said about this story is that a chunk of it is a lie.
The backpacker didn't exist. That was the lie.
I suppose the Texan was a lie too. He was just someone I happened to spot in the airport that day. He wasn't even on our flight. I just happened to see him in the airport and I wondered if he got scammed too. Everything else about the scammers, immigration officers and talking my way out of paying a bogus tax was completely true.
I tell two versions of this story, depending on the circumstance.
If I want a laugh, I'll tell the story as it really happened: Jeff and I were changing planes in Lima and we were tricked into walking out of the airport by scammers. We had a really long layover, which meant we had plenty of time to kill. So, I argued our way out of paying the bogus tax by amusing the immigration officers (as well as the scammers).
On the other hand, if I'm doing a favor for someone who doesn't really know me and he or she asks why I'm being so kind, I tell the story as I've told it here, complete with the part about the backpacker who didn't exist and Texan I've taken completely out of context. I do this because I'm a corny mother fucker.
There. I said it. I'm corny.
I believe in things like putting a little goodness out there in hopes others will pay it forward, and I've learned that people who don't know me well won't accept a favor unless I have an entertaining story to explain why I'd do such a thing.
Note that, in my story, I didn't say anybody did me a favor. I just said that I saw someone do a selfless favor and that inspired me to do the same. It's all a lie, but I love it because it leads to a cycle where people pay favors forward for complete strangers and they feel good about doing so because they think it's part of a bigger cycle. Hopefully.
Maybe it happens and maybe it doesn't. I don't know. All I know is that I did my part.
I'm not telling you any of this because I'm looking for credit or brownie points. I shared this story and the thoughts that go with it because I've recently become curious about the reasons for my own actions. The truth is, I don't know why I do some of the things I do. In the end, I'm not sure it really matters, but I'm curious all the same. Somehow, typing it out helps me think it through.
Even if I don't learn anything about myself or my motives, I at least end up sharing a good story, right? That's good enough for me. Good enough for tonight, anyway.
Feel free to take my story and spin it to make it your own. Pick a moment from your past and create your own Texan. Do a favor or two and use your own story to explain why you put a little good out there. Who knows... maybe somebody will pay your favor forward. Maybe you'll be the story someone else tells.