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Sometimes your timing is all wrong and you cross paths with a stranger that, judging from the situation, you’d rather not run into. How you handle it will hopefully predict its outcome. This is not a time to hide your head in your cell phone or duck and turn away. This is the time to “man up,” or “woman up,” as the saying goes.

This is what I thought was happening to me on a recent road trip when we pulled up to a gas station. My dog had to go to the bathroom. As I walked him towards a grassy area, I noticed a lawn mower running with no one on it. Scanning the property, I saw the lawn mower man, middle-aged with fair skin and a reddish beard, picking up garbage from the grass. Oh, I thought, he’s probably in a pisser mood. Why did that man have to be there right now?

“Hi,” I said to him in my friendliest voice as my dog was just about to go. “I brought a bag. I’m cleaning up after him.” I was wondering what his reaction would be. But he surprised me.

“I don’t care about that,” he said. “I care about the litter. You know what, people just don’t care anymore. They just don’t.” He held up the garbage bag for me to see. Paper cups, candy wrappers, and napkins stared back at me.

“You know what I’m most proud of?” he said. “I’m most proud of my two kids. They both care.”

“That’s great,” I said. “That’s saying a lot. Maybe people would clean up more if they knew how lucky they were to live in this country,” I said. “I know we’re not perfect, but we have it better than most.”

“You know what,” he said. “I worked with a guy at the factory. I don’t work there anymore, but he was from Madagascar. Every day he would say to me, ‘I am so lucky to live in America. I am so lucky.’ His saying that to me every day made me realize how lucky I was too.”

He paused. We looked at each other as he held the dirty bag.

I smiled at him. Memories of my Nana and Papa who immigrated to America from Russia came over me. I visited them weekly throughout out my childhood and there wasn’t a day that I can remember when one of them didn’t say to me, “You are so lucky to be an American. Never forget.” And I never did.

The lawn mower man and I wished each other a good day, and we meant it. Then I deposited my dog’s poop bag in the trash can next to my car and drove away.

I don’t know his name. He doesn’t know mine, but it was good for both of us to meet, to be reminded that amongst the litterers lie the true Americans, ones who will carry their garbage as far as it takes till they find the right container.

Our paths had crossed on a strip of grass at a gas station near Mansfield, Ohio, a town where John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, lived for 20 years, striving to leave the world a better place than he found it. And in that crossing we had both been awakened by memories of important role models in our lives, voices that speak to us, reminding us to respect our land, to throw things away in their proper place, and to go that extra mile in gratefulness.