The internet makes it hard to be anonymous. I have dug up details about out-of-print records and found photos from magazines that have been totally forgotten. I’ve identified bit actors and replacement bass players and found the fifth verse to an obscure Christmas carol. All it takes in most cases is a few keystrokes. The challenge is now less in finding information than it is in identifying information that can’t be found.

But there are a few things that still elude me:

  1. The name of that book about the guy who thinks his girlfriend was kidnapped from a gas station but – it turns out (spoiler alert!)– the guy himself is actually dead.
  2. Gary’s last name

Number one is a real mystery. I have spent multiple evenings (and an entire one of my daughter’s cross country practice sessions) Googling some variation of the above description and turned up no satisfying results. I have even combed the section of the downtown public library from where I borrowed the book close to a decade ago to see if I might just recognize the cover. I can’t say I even liked the book – the “he is dead!” thing seemed like a real cop out. But the fact that I am still this obsessed about figuring out what it was and who wrote it means it made some kind of impact.

Gary is a different story. Gary made a HUGE impact.

My family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas when I was 16. I knew no one and was initially mistaken for a Swedish exchange student at my new high school. Let’s just say I was a little lonely. But I was able to parlay three months of experience I had gotten working the drive-thru at a Dairy Queen in my previous town into a gig at a Sonic Drive-In and this meant I didn’t have to stay home all of the time.

In my three years at that fast food restaurant, I met enough quirky fry cooks, delusional car-hops and creepy customers to fill a large book of stories. But it was the man managing that circus who really made a difference.

Gary was probably close to 40. He had a wife and kids he clearly adored, a big sense of humor and a direct way of getting things done that was effective without being insulting. Gary wouldn’t let guys take smoke breaks – he said a bad habit shouldn’t give you extra time off the clock – so he instituted banana breaks. We were all welcome to grab a banana from the sundae station and hang out in the shed behind the restaurant for a few precious minutes if things ever got too stressful.

I specifically remember Gary bringing in a photo album one day and showing us pictures of the first house he and his wife had lived in together. It had a dirt floor. He showed this off proudly because he had just built his family a new place on the edge of town. He wanted every single one of us part-time cashiers and burger-flippers to know that we could make a way for ourselves because he had done it for himself.

When I finally quit the restaurant to head to college, Gary insisted on taking me out for a “proper” meal to celebrate. We hit up a Mexican place a few streets over and he told me his methodology for leaving a tip and gave me a gift card to the mall as an extra token of his gratitude. (I bought – and still have – a copy of my second favorite Our Lady Peace album on CD). During my last shift, he handed me an envelope emblazoned with the restaurant logo which inside contained an unsolicited letter of recommendation, extoling my virtues of hard work, honesty and smiling.

When I think of the people who probably had an actual life-changing effect on helping me grow from boy to man, Gary is on that list. But shamefully, I can’t remember his last name. I have never been able to tell him this.

So take this as an open letter. Gary – if you’re out there – thanks for teaching me to be fair, to work hard and take pride in what I have. I hope you own ten franchises now.

And Gary, one more thing…

Have you ever read a book about this guy who thinks his girlfriend has been kidnapped?…


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