Love song to a stranger
January 10, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

What to get as a thank you gift for a stranger?

Short version:

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.

Long version:

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.)

posted by espidre to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me a nice well written sincere thank you letter would mean a lot to me.
posted by ian1977 at 7:04 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in town? A letter to the chamber of commerce/better business bureau, copied to him, about what an asset he is to the town? I know what you mean about a gift card being tacky, but for people you don't know at all, it can be lovely and generous.
posted by judith at 7:11 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's a great and touching story just as you've written it. If I had done something like that for someone, and they wrote to me a story like this one about what a difference that small favor I'd done for them had made in their lives - it would make my day, my week, my month.

I sincerely think that is plenty, but if you feel you must do more, perhaps a gift certificate to a local restaurant of a high enough amount to cover two people's meals.
posted by flex at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding "hand written letter of thanks". Bottle of quality wine is also good, or for non-drinkers a small, pretty plant, a little jade or such.
posted by ead at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

See if you can take him out to dinner. He said he was lonely, so he might miss that.

Do you have something that is popular from where you are originally from that would make a nice gift?

Maybe you can get the local paper to mention your story?
posted by backwards guitar at 7:13 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

He said he's a bit lonely. Why not show up with a pizza some night and ask if he'll share it with you? Then do it again a few weeks later, and repeat until your year is up. I bet he would be delighted.
posted by argonauta at 7:13 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm seeing this as a really good opportunity to make a friend and not just thank a stranger.
posted by Loto at 7:14 PM on January 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

I don't think you should spend a lot of money to achieve your goal. Especially because what he did was about time, not money.

This man gave you a ride becuse he saw the importance of the situation for your future. Similarly, he presumably is running a motel in the midwest in order to make a better life for his family. How can you help him achieve that? Maybe you can offer to tour his children or relations around your new fancy institution (an open ended invite is possible here)?

What can you do to help his business? You can endorse it to the world and to the institution you are leaving - write positive reviews in TripAdvisor, Google Places, etc. Write something brief he could frame for the motel wall. Do this on institutional letterhead if possible, with all your fancy titles.

In general, when giving gifts, think about what the recipient will appreciate thatt is related or connected to you & your time together. In this case, I think something long lasting (ie not consumable or experiential) would be best. Something connected with your work or the college would be good. something related to hot weather, travel, caring for people in distress. Definitely not booze or a gift card.

Thank you can be powerful words, it's great that you wish to express them.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:22 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

All the above suggestions are good, but I have another one that might help the hotel owner. Why not share this story/a shortened version of it/or just a positive review on a travel website like TripAdvisor or Expedia?

My husband and I just took a 10-day unplanned road trip and the reviews we read on sites like those went a long way towards determining what hotels we booked on-the-spot and last minute. A thank-you letter is of course the best idea, but a little word of mouth might help him in the long run.
posted by Brittanie at 7:26 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

To accompany the thank-you letter, how 'bout a box of Harry and David pears, premium cashews or Omaha steaks?
posted by carmicha at 7:38 PM on January 10, 2012

Send him the thank you note, and tell him that you'd like to help his child (or future child) in the same way, and to contact you each year until his kid is your age. You get a pen pal, he gets a fair reward. I'm Indian; our people love that shit.
posted by anildash at 7:44 PM on January 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

I gave the book The Kindness of Strangers as a gift to the couple that aided my friend and I when we visited Rome in the middle of a transit strike. Perhaps it would work for your situation too, along with a note that includes the story you shared here.
posted by youngergirl44 at 7:45 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a hand-written letter is perfect, and I really like argonauta's idea of just showing up with a gift or offering to grab dinner or just hang out and recount your experience. He sounds like the kind of person that would immediately turn down any offer or gift, but if you are already there and show up it is hard to turn down (and sounds like he would appreciate the company, even if he says he doesn't want anything for the favor).

Also, I really admire his foresight -- that is an amazing thing he did. I JUST went on an interview and was running late and sprinted the last leg. I started sweating PROFUSELY from my forehead as soon as the interview began. My entire focus shifted to the sweat -- I wasn't even listening or paying attention. I was just waiting for opportunities to dab my brow -- and the awkwardness only made me sweat more. It was awful. Finally, right near the end I started to get it under control, so I immediately over compensated and started chatting up a storm and really trying to make my impression post-mortem. Ugh. I am starting to get awkward just recounting this. I never heard back from them.

This guy is my hero.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 8:17 PM on January 10, 2012

Thank you all for these suggestions. I am going to mull this over tonight and go by tomorrow after work to at least make sure I can still locate the guy. I'll be sure to update in the next day or two.
posted by espidre at 8:29 PM on January 10, 2012

By the way, This_Will_Be_Good, I only fully realized what a gift I'd been given after I did my third and final interview of the summer, about a week after the one I wrote about above. I drove several hours to get there in my non-air-conditioned car and was running late and had to run a few blocks after I parked. It was among the most sweaty and awkward experiences of my life. And not surprisingly, as I mentioned, I received a rejection.

It turns out there are all these tricks to being a competent professional that they just don't teach you in school.
posted by espidre at 8:40 PM on January 10, 2012

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.

This guy's totally random act of kindness made your career, eh? It was that big? If you really believe that and aren't exaggerating, then this isn't a bottle of wine type of thing. This is a, now I'm your friend and will remember you for many years, and when my chances come up to give you those little bumps forward in life I will do so, thing. (To the extent you feel comfortable doing so and know that you will make good on).

Write him a letter. Tell him exactly what you told us, about how this job is career making, you never would have gotten it without what he had done, and now you have opportunities that you never would have had. Tell him you will always consider him to be a friend. Tell him he has a place to stay if he's ever in your city. Tell his kids can call you for advice as they grow up, start thinking about college and careers. Refer your friends who go to that town to his hotel, etc. etc. Send him a postcard every few years letting him know how things are progressing for. (Again, things along those lines but just those you feel comfortable with.).

That's what I think would be appropriate for something like this.
posted by cairdeas at 8:57 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

It might be nice to bring this fellow to the attention of the local paper. Small town papers are always looking for human interest stories, and highlighting his business and his good nature might bring him more business, which would be doing a service to his family.

I think you should also go and thank him in person, and let him know that his kindness made a difference in your life. Preferably let him know in front of his wife and his children. I think most people don't want fame or riches, they just want to know that they have had some positive effect in this world.
posted by vignettist at 9:48 PM on January 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Seconding Vignettist.

If the paper decides not to write about him, write a letter to the editor about him. After either is published, have the piece nicely framed and give it to him.
posted by maurreen at 10:24 PM on January 10, 2012

A good tripadvisor review please. /markets for hotels
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:58 AM on January 11, 2012

this small town girl seconds a letter to the editor. happens all the time here and everyone loves to read about how kind/generous/helpful their local townies are. People in small towns have a real sense of pride about that kind of thing, especially in the midwest.

A visit to the motel would be nice on top of that as well. He didn't do such a nice thing expecting any gain from it, so that might be awkward.
posted by domino at 7:17 AM on January 11, 2012

I think you cannot get him anything to show your appreciation, only your appreciation will do.

Sometimes letting someone be giving is a gift. To be kind and enjoy the happiness of others, wish them success, and help them on their way offers a special kind of joy; and the best thing you can do is to learn from him and be that kind of person yourself.

Dropping by with another sincere thank you and your update will make him just as happy, whereas attempting to come back with some gift, well it kind of lessens the magnanimity of what he did, and may leave him feeling obligated. And yes, promoting good will towards his business wherever and whenever you can from here on in is of course what to do on top of that - but if you attempt to reciprocate with a "thing" that attempts to meet his act of kindness (even attempting a relationship beyond that, if he's not comfortable) other than paying it forward, it kind of takes away from the joy of giving and performing random acts of kindness and just putting good into the world.

One night just before this past Christmas I gave two (very young) (and quite drunk) teenagers who'd found themselves in an unfamiliar part of town and had asked me for directions to the subway a ride straight home. They offered thanks in many ways, but I refused as all I want from it is for someone else in the world to be as kind should my own kid ever be in the same position.
posted by peagood at 7:30 AM on January 11, 2012

Just wanted to note a certificate to a restaurant might make more sense to a Westerner than an Indian - though I'm not Indian myself, I know many people from poor countries feel eating out is quite wasteful.
posted by Dragonness at 8:10 AM on January 11, 2012

Update: I went by this evening and told the young guy working the front desk that I was looking for an Indian man who'd been running the place a year and a half ago. He seemed hesitant to talk to me at first, probably because I was still wearing a suit from work. But I explained very briefly why I was there, and he told me that the guy is still the general manager, but said he's out of town until January 23.

He also told me that Mr. Patel is a vegan and doesn't drink. So it's probably for the best that I didn't show up with a pizza and a bottle of scotch.

When he does get back, I plan to go by and thank him, give him a nice letter, try to take him and his family out for dinner (I guess at the one Indian restaurant in town?), and tell him that if he or anyone in his family are ever in [the big city I'll be in next year], they'll have a place to stay, and if any of his kids follow my career path, I'll be happy to do what I can to help them. If we hit it off, maybe we can hang out more this year. I'm a little lonely here, too.

I did write a glowing review on the internet way back August 2010, but I can't seem to find it now, so I'll write another. And I guess I can also go ahead and say here that if anyone reading this is ever in Lawrence, Kansas, you should stay at the Days Inn on Iowa Street. Most of the reviews online say it's dirty--it's a cheap hotel, after all--but I thought it was just fine when I stayed there. And even though it's not very close to the downtown, it's a stone's throw from a good co-op, a liquor store, and some restaurants. Plus, I'm sure Mr. Patel will enjoy hearing how you heard about the place.
posted by espidre at 4:05 PM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't assume that because he's Indian he'll want to go to the Indian restaurant. He's vegan, so that probably limits your options a fair bit (depending on the size of your town), but see if you can find a raw food place or something like that. If not, let him decide if the Indian place is worth visiting.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:19 PM on January 12, 2012

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