The Spice Man Cometh

I felt bad not buying his wares, and I felt worse when I found out who he really was

Most people consider me to be a warm and compassionate person. In fact, that's the way I view myself. I tell my children that I value kindness above all things. So when the spice man came to my door, I had a problem.

Long an institution in my neighborhood, the spice man walked the streets in a trenchcoat and fedora pulled down low over his head to protect himself from Oregon's constant rain. He carried a suitcase full of spices. Because he had medical disability, he walked slowly with a limp. He also spoke slowly.

The first time he came to my door, I thought, "Well, I don't need any spices but hey, the guy's wet and obviously struggling, so I'll let him in." He came into my living room, sat on my sofa, and displayed his wares. They were expensive. I was a stay-at-home mom on a limited budget, but I bought a $17 bottle of imitation vanilla that I couldn't afford. He drank a cup of tea, and set out again.

I felt bad about this guy. I saw him limp off in the rain and wished I could have bought more from him. What a hard way to make a living. But I could get spices a lot cheaper at Waremart. I mentioned the spice man to my neighbor one day. She said, "Oh THAT guy? Don't worry about him! He's been around since I was a kid! He makes a killing selling that stuff!"

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"Really?" I said. "You mean he doesn't need my business? You sure?"

"Absolutely!" she said with a nod. "He's doing just fine!"

For some reason, I believed her. The next time he came to my door, I did not invite him in. He was making a killing, after all. I wasn't. So I said, "I'm sorry, but my husband just started a new job and we're on a really tight budget right now." He nodded sympathetically and turned to hobble down the front steps. I felt bad.

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A few months later, there he was again. I opened the door. "I'm sorry, but nothing's really changed," I said. "I'm afraid I still can't buy anything."

"You....'re ssssstill on a bbbbbudget..." he said very slowly. "'s b...b...een a llllllong time now." I felt bad again. Bad for his sake, and bad for mine. He was right. How long was this dang budget going to have to last anyway?

"I'm sorry," I repeated, and closed the door.

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The next time I saw the spice man heading down the street I called to my kids. "Quick, guys, get behind the sofa! The spice man is here!"

"What, Mom?" my 5-year-old daughter Genna replied. "Why? Is he a scary man?" She and my 3-year-old son Matt crouched next to me on the floor.

"No, honey. He's not scary. He's a good man," I explained. "I just don't want to buy his spices." Genna looked confused. The doorbell rang. "Shhh!" I said. "Don't talk!" The doorbell rang again. We stayed hidden. Then we heard knocking. The spice man was remarkably persistent. I peeped around the sofa. I could see the top of his hat through the door window. I huddled with my kids and kept silent. Finally, I heard his footsteps walking away.

A few months later, my kids were out playing in the front yard. "Mommy! Mommy!" Genna screamed, clutching Matt by his hand and running to the front door. "I see the bad man coming! He's coming down the street! Quick! Hide!"

The kids ran into the house and hid behind the sofa. I saw the spice man heading towards our house. "Oh, no, you guys!" I admonished. "He's not a bad man! He just sells things I can't afford! He's really a nice man!" I obviously hadn't done a good enough job explaining the situation to them. Nonetheless, I joined them behind the sofa.

Soon the spice man stopped coming to our house altogether. I'd still see him in the neighborhood, climbing the steps to other people's homes, but he'd obviously given up on us. "Oh well," I thought. "Good thing he does so well." I still felt bad.

Then one night, while searching for something to watch on TV, I came upon a movie called "Door to Door," starring William H. Macy. I love William H. Macy. I read the description: "'Door to Door' is the inspirational true story of a man who refused to let severe physical debilitation get in the way of his life's goal. William H. Macy ... stars as Bill Porter, a Portland, OR, native born with cerebral palsy. Despite his spastic walk and oddly shaped countenance, Bill intends to succeed in life on ability rather than the pity of the unafflicted ..."

What? I thought. That sounds like the spice man! Our spice man! I continued reading.

"Thus, in 1955, he manages to land a job as a door-to-door salesman for the Watkins Company. At first, Bill meets with nothing but slammed doors, hostile dogs and unashamed hostility from 'normal' people ..."

My heart sank. Slammed doors, hostile dogs, unashamed hostility? I didn't mean it! I didn't slam the door! My dog barked but wasn't exactly hostile! Neither was I, was I? WAS I? I read some more.

"After making his first sale to a reclusive alcoholic named Gladys (Kathy Baker), there is literally no stopping him. For the next 40 years, Bill walks some eight to ten miles per day plying his trade."

Eight to ten miles a day? With a disability? In the rain? That's MY spice man! I watched the movie.

William Macy was great in it. Bill Porter wasn't making a killing. He faced unimaginable challenges in his life, beginning with a parent who wanted to institutionalize him, and he pushed himself to the limits to simply lead an independent life. Many people opened their hearts and their doors to him. I wasn't one of them.

The next time I saw Bill passing by my house, I ran out the door, calling to him. "Mr. Porter, come back! We want to buy some spices."

I'm not sure if he heard me or not. He kept walking. It was then that I realized I had failed with the spice man. An epic failure of compassion and admiration. I went inside to try to explain it all to my crying kids.

Tags: memoirs