Late in the afternoon today, my dear wife and I ventured outside into the fading swelter of the month-long southern California heat spell, and we heard the familiar, nostalgic tootling of an ice cream truck’s tune. There hasn’t been one of those around here in ages. She rushed across the street to indulge in a treat that we haven’t enjoyed in decades and returned with a rare chocolate-on-chocolate ice cream sandwich. I had a tiny bite, mmmm, and enjoyed watching her savor the rest of its childhood-reawakening goodness. Then she went to try to rescue our drought-baked rose garden.
Meanwhile, a young man who had been speaking to the vendor in the ice cream truck came across the street with urgency in his manner and asked me how far the local market was from here. I told him it was several blocks away, more than half a mile, and asked him what was the problem. He said that he left his money in his car in that market’s parking lot and had wandered with his kids over to the park near my home. He started off briskly in the direction I had indicated. I called after him to wait, and asked if he just needed some money for ice cream, and he said yes. I told him the vendor would probably be long gone before he was able to return. I asked how much money did he need, and he said it was six dollars. I offered to give him the money he needed, but he balked, saying thankfully that he didn’t want to take my money. I said, “It’s no big deal, I’m not running out of money, I’m running out of time,” and I handed him seven bucks. He wondered how he could pay me back, and I said, “Don’t worry about it, just pay it forward to somebody else or something,” and waved him toward the ice cream truck that was looking like it would soon be departing.
The young man was very grateful, and said that he was sure that somehow I would be repaid many times over, mentioning something about Jesus blessing me. I replied, “Thank you, that’s very sweet of you, but I don’t care about getting paid back more, less, or the same, it’s just about fulfilling a need. This is a simple need, a lovely need: ice cream on a hot day for you and your kids, and it’s easy for me to fulfill it. Now go, before the ice cream guy leaves.”
He waved as he turned and ran back to the truck, made his purchase, and went on toward the park.
At his mention of Jesus blessing me, I’m glad that I didn’t give in to the temptation to say my favorite line, “Actually, I’m an atheist,” which I’ve said in many other, less hurried conversations. Somehow, in this incident, that might have spoiled the sweet simplicity of it all. In my atheist group, I do a lot of public outreach work specifically to dispel the widespread negative stereotypes about atheists, but once in a while it’s okay to just live humanism rather than overtly promote it.
That’s the long-term goal I envision: If humanism finally spreads wide and strong through humanity, it won’t need to be promoted, just lived.
RICHARD WADE is a retired licensed marriage and family therapist in Southern California. Former host of the “Ask Richard” column at Friendly Atheist, Richard is President Emeritus of the Santa Clarita Valley Atheists and Freethinkers.