That Guy

What does a young boy’s disappointing experience have to do with people who reject him later in life?

“Hello, sir or ma’am. I would like you to buy this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a comfortabler. Like for your bed. Except it’s smaller, and made out of paper.”

“OK. Let me get my wallet. How much?”

“That’ll be 50 cents, but it’s more if you wanna zebra one.”

So went the sales story of my prepubescent youth, peddling 3” x 5” note cards with colorful patterns drawn on them—what I thought a bedspread might look like from the ceiling.

Most kids had lemonade stands to make money. I wanted to stand out. Designing mediocre, tiny, paper bedspreads was the obvious choice.

I crafted intricate designs on tiny card stock rectangles. I spent my Saturday afternoons knocking on our neighbors’ front doors, flashing my charm and missing front teeth to whoever answered. I’d beg them to buy my drawings if I had to. I was ruthless.

Why not? The drawings I made for Mom at school were always well-received—gold star notoriety and front-of-the-fridge placement. Of course, those drawings took too much work—but a simple rectangle? Doable.

My venture, which I creatively called “Justin’s Comfortablers,” was a success. I clocked in a full four weeks before operations shut down. The profit? Enough to buy me a Mortal Kombat action figure.

It would’ve gone on longer, too, if it weren’t for That Guy.

I knew him as a retired cop who lived at the end of the street, but Mom called him an asshole. That’s what she called my dad, too, so I knew he wasn’t good news.

However, 50 cents was 50 cents, and no customer was immune to my antics.

I gave him my spiel when he opened his door (“Hello sir or ma’am. I would like you to buy this.”), and he shut me down immediately.

“That’s illegal, boy, selling things around here,” he yelled in a scratchy, old-guy voice. “You know that? You want the police to come after you? This shit’s ugly anyway. Get the hell out of my yard!”

I didn’t know what “illegal” meant, but his rejection scalded me immediately. No one had ever said “no” before.

I dropped my stack of bedspreads, and started crying. I ran off his porch to my bicycle. He yelled to me about littering.

This moment was when I first knew what it meant to be rejected. What started out as a tantrum on an old man’s front porch depressed me for weeks.

I couldn’t concentrate in school. My mom’s toy bribes didn’t cheer me up. My mind was wholly set on That Guy—the one who looked me in the eye, and shooed me away; the one who didn’t want me.

Overdramatic? Sure—but I was a kid, and my pain was real.

It’s funny how those lessons follow us, isn’t it?

These are the moments that help craft who we become. They teach us how to deal. Moments like this force us to grow up, and move on.

Unlike other precious childhood lessons, though, we never really get the hang of being rejected. It happens endlessly through life, and every time feels like the first.

Why? Because, unlike learning to deal with not getting the toy you wanted for Christmas, being rejected in this sense feels as if it strikes at the only thing we really have: who we are.

When someone denies us for this reason, there is no hope for tolerance. As a kid, my pitiful bedspreads felt this way.

That Guy follows us forever. He’s the grumpy old man at the end of the street. He’s in the mirrors of those who broke our hearts. He holds positions of power that allow him to reject those whose happiness he doesn’t tolerate—say, oh, the happiness of two people who love one other, and happen to be the same gender….

Advice often given to the young and the hopeful—“Don’t be that guy”—prescribes that the examples of The Obnoxious, The Ignorant, The Cynical, The Egotistical are noteworthy, because they are names for who our childhood lessons teach us not to become. They are the misguided.

That Guy eventually apologized to me.

One day, he will again.

To us.

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