What to get as a thank you gift for a stranger?
Someone went out of his way to do me a good turn, and it has made a big difference in my professional life. I'd like to get him something to say "thank you," but I don't know what. And I don't feel like I can just go ask him what he'd like.
I don't know how much explanation is actually necessary, but I'll tell the whole story because I like it so much.
In the summer of 2010, shortly before I started my last year of graduate school, I was applying for post-graduate jobs in a number of places across the country. I received an invitation to interview for a position I very much wanted in a Midwestern town far from home where I knew no one. Without going into detail, this was a one-year position that people in my line of work covet, and that is thought to essentially make one's career.
Anyway, I was flying out on my own dime, and I wanted to spend as little money as possible. I didn't know anyone I could stay with and I couldn't rent a car (for reasons I won't go into here), so I looked at a map and found the cheapest hotel within what I thought would be a reasonable walking distance of the interview. This turned out to be a motel about two miles away. Like an idiot, I did not think about the fact that I would be walking in nearly 100-degree August heat. Or that I would be wearing a suit. Or that it would not be possible on short notice to get a taxi or catch a bus in this small town once I put those other factors together.
So I flew out the night before the interview, got to the hotel, slept a little, and left my room late the next morning all dandied up in my one good suit and my freshly polished cowboy boots. I ate some food in the lobby and was about to start walking when the proprietor, a middle-aged Indian fellow, asked me where I was going.
I told him I was walking downtown for an interview, and he said I could not do that in the heat. "I drive you," he said. I tried to politely decline, but he insisted several times: "No, I drive you." So we waited a few minutes for his wife to get back from running errands, and then he drove me. We chatted a bit on the way; he was a recent immigrant, and he felt a bit lonely. There weren't many Indian people in town. When we got there, I thanked him and tried to give him ten bucks for the ride, but he wouldn't take it.
I did the interview and then walked back to the hotel. By the time I got there, I had sweated through my suit and I felt exhausted and weak and looked like hell. I flew home and got the job offer a few weeks later. (At about that time, I received rejections from the other two places I traveled to for interviews that summer.)
So now I'm four months into the job, and it's wonderful. I'm learning a great deal, and it has indeed made my career; I just accepted an offer to move back close to home and do exactly the work I went to school to do. In this economy, plenty of the folks i went to school with are unemployed. I feel remarkably blessed.
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that given the sort of employer I was interviewing with and the nature of my field, I would not have gotten the job had I showed up panting, sweating, and generally looking like an unprofessional mess without any common sense. So, in a very real way, this guy did something tremendous for me that I was too stupid to even think I needed at the time, and it's made a huge difference in my life. I'd like to go down to the hotel and thank him, if he's still there. (I really hope he is.) Somehow, just saying "thanks" doesn't seem like enough.
So, if anyone has read this far, my question is this: What can I get him to show my appreciation? I'm not from a family that really does gifts, and I've never been in this sort of position before. And I don't think I can just go ask, because he'd probably turn me down, like he did with the ten dollars. So I want something I can set on the counter and walk away from after giving a heartfelt thank you. Money isn't a big concern (within reason; I'm still paying off school loans here), but of course I have no idea what price range would even be appropriate. A gift card seems tacky. A bottle of nice liquor would be bad if he doesn't drink. That's about all I can think of. Any ideas would be appreciated.
(And please don't just say "pay it forward." I pick up hitchhikers, give money to panhandlers and the nonprofits I care about, and otherwise generally try to do that already.)