I have something to confess. I’m not quite the philanthropist I’ve led you to believe I am. Far from it, actually. I’m notoriously tight-fisted with money and despise people, particularly the truly destitute. I once wrestled a bottle of water from a thirsty homeless man so I could cleanse my palate on my way to a fancy business lunch. (I’d just finished snacking on caviar in the corporate hovercraft and didn’t want the aftertaste to eclipse the subtle essence of the cucumber bisque I planned on starting with.)
The few charities I do donate to are self-serving, like the Cure Colorblindness Foundation, the IT Band Syndrome Institute and the non-profit group that does free oil changes on antique cars, like my classic Bentley. I could always pay for an oil change, of course, but I enjoy the tax game and get a kick out of withholding legitimate revenue from our socialist government.
And rather than feed and clothe a dozen starving African kids, I buy a delicious, overpriced coffee every morning and savor it while lounging in an overstuffed arm chair. The brazen self importance with which I disregard hungry children would make Susan Sarandon roll over in her grave.
I am a human being, however, and my icy heart can only get so cold and dark before it needs some warming. Twenty four ounces of Kobe beef and a bottle of thirty year old scotch usually does the trick, but I decided this time to try something different. Last week, I had the opportunity to volunteer with inner city kids, and at the urging of Mrs. Bacon (and the promise of a free lunch), I signed up to volunteer at the ING KiDS ROCK Marathon in Philadelphia.
The KiDS ROCK Marathon is a pretty cool event. The kids spend 6-8 weeks training for the race and during that time run a cumulative 25.2 miles. Then, on race day, they run the final mile of their marathon and finish at a big-deal finish line, complete with medals, water and snacks. Alternatively, the kids can skip the training and just show up that day and run/walk a mile. From the looks of things, most chose the latter.
The race was held at the plateau in Fairmount Park and I arrived on race day a little before 9:00, ready to get nothing back. I was just finishing up my large coffee when I got to the park and had to use the bathroom before checking in.
Through this door is the most atrocious public restroom on Earth. What you see is actually the back door to the bathroom at the first rest stop on the drive to Hell. They later set up port-a-potties in the parking lot and strongly encouraged people to use them instead. So far, Volunteering: 0, Literally Anything Else: 1.
I checked in and got a pretty cool t-shirt, which buoyed my spirits a little. I ran to the car to put it on and swaggered back to the tent, emboldened by the sense of authority that my RACE CREW shirt instilled in me. I imagined barking out orders, screaming into a megaphone and single-handedly getting this race off the ground in spite of my bumbling crew of helpless volunteers.
The sight of the start/finish area sent a ripple of adrenaline through my legs and I totally wanted to run it.
I decided that in addition to taking over the organization and logistics of the entire operation, I was going to win this race. I was sitting on the grass and well into a convoluted, narcissistic daydream when I was summoned for my first job of the morning: handing out t-shirts to the kids.
The t-shirt station ran remarkably smoothly, considering how easily it could have become an absolute circus. The kids were patient and polite and I very nearly enjoyed myself as I handed out new shirts and exchanged ill-fitting ones. I even smiled when an entire class of 2nd graders put on their race shirts (some forwards, some backwards) and tore around the field to see how much faster they’d made them.
After the last kids got their shirts and headed to the corrals, I wandered down to the starting line in search of my next job. Maybe I could still get that megaphone…
The kids were lining up when I got there, and a few minutes later they were off! Most of them took off at a dead sprint. I’ve seen men run slower from a bear. I cheered and clapped and smiled from ear to ear, and wandered through the finish area, still trying to find my next job. My eyes lit up when I saw the rack of medals.
Awesome. My next job would definitely be handing out the medals – that’s the coolest race volunteer job there is. I snuck up behind the medals and slowly, but assertively, started to inch my way closer and closer, trying my damndest to look like I belonged there. I finally got close enough to casually lean against the rack and check my watch every so often as if to say “Man, when are they going to finish? I’ve got medals to hand out.”
An initial sideways glance became a full-on, confused stare and it was clear that the official medal hander-outer jerks would have none of it. “I think they need some help with the pretzels,” they told me, and pointed to a table of snacks.
Ugh, no thank you. I anxiously looked around for a different station to man, but while I had been wasting my time inching up to the medals, all of the other good jobs got taken. It’s like when you’re at an insurance conference and end up last in line for the buffet because you got stuck in the bathroom and by the time you have your food there’s only one seat left and it’s right next to the colossal dork from The Hartford with his nauseatingly tight slacks who chews with his mouth open and will not shut up about his sister and her ugly kids.
I was standing in front of the pretzel table, looking at everyone else looking back at me: the pretzel guy.
I finally saw a couple of orange shirts running down the hill and toward the finish. As the winner came through the cute I dutifully handed him a bag of pretzels and congratulated him. More and more kids came in and they each got pretzels and a “Congratulations!” As I got more comfortable in my role, I started to mix it up. Some of them got a “Good job!” and a pat on the back. I was having fun.
Then, I realized that the guy in front of me giving high fives:
was Jim Ryun! You all know Jim Ryun – he ran a 4 minute mile, and he did it back when that kind of thing was a big deal. In fact, his high school mile record (3:55) held from 1965 until 2001, when some guy named Alan Webb broke it.
I couldn’t help myself, I had to say hi:
“Hello Mr. Ryan, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m…”
“Yes. Right. Eric, actually, how did you…”
“I’m a huge fan! Gosh, I can’t wait to tell my wife I met Mr. Bacon!”
None of that actually happened; he had the high-five job and I was the pretzel guy. I fully intended to say hello after all of this was over, though. But as I kept handing out pretzels and smiling and feeling good about volunteering, I started to get stage fright and realized that I had no idea what to say. How would I start? Nothing felt right.
“Hi Mr. Ryun! I’m a big fan.”
“Hey Mr. Ryun, nice job on that mile!”
“So, you were a congressman… What’s that like?”
As all of this was going through my head, he had stopped giving high fives and had walked to the other side of the field where he was sitting at a table signing autographs for the kids. A long line had formed and I decided to just let it go. Plus, I had snacks to distribute.
There was a second start (for the littlest kids) and by this point they had started to finish. I was running out of pretzels and my face was sore from smiling as the last of the kids walked through the chute. We started to pack up, and the sky looked pretty grim.
We finished cleaning up and had just started walking back when the first drops fell. Five seconds later, I was soaked to the bone and still had a good 100 yards to walk to the tiny volunteer tent.
I guess no good deed goes unpunished – my free lunch got a little wet.
I have to admit, I had a lot of fun, and volunteering at a race is my kind of philanthropy (does that even count?). The kids were enthusiastic and whether they knew it or not, they had a very real race experience. T-shirts, medals, snacks… this had it all. So am I turning over a new leaf? I don’t know. Is it going to rain every time I volunteer for something? I was all wet on the drive home; it was kind of a bummer.