Traveling to a healthcare event last year, I shared a long ride from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Nijmegen with Nick Adkins. Nick is one of those larger than life characters in healthcare that’s amassed a sizeable and loyal following — both in real life and on social media channels like Twitter. To that point, we had only traded tweets — so it was a great chance to meet him in person. If there’s an opposite to the character of a grifter or con artist it’s a gifter — someone who gives freely of their time and energy. That’s probably the best single description I can think of for Nick. He’s a gifter.
So just what is his gift? He has many (including some amazing stories), but as an extension of his overall generosity, he freely and liberally gives out pairs of pink socks wherever he goes — and pretty much to anyone who will accept the gift. At major healthcare events (and some minor ones), he has boxes shipped in and they’re usually available as a part of a speaking engagement — mostly where Nick is talking about building a tribe of people that wear pink socks.
There’s a twitter hashtag #pinksocks, a website, and the interwebs are littered with pictures of this growing tribe. Maybe you’ve seen the tweets, the people, the pictures — or even wear a pair yourself. Here’s just one example.
The tribe is growing — and officially includes Royalty — literally. Here’s Nick gifting a pair to Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands.
Nick gave me a pair as well, of course, but I was both hesitant and skeptical of the meaning and purpose behind the gift. By wearing pink socks, what I am signing up for? What cause or group am I visually endorsing? Who pays — and who benefits? It’s a reporter’s instinct — at times a curse — but it also comes from years of covering healthcare where truly free gifts are rare (valet parking?) and many of the stories I seem to come across are variations of horrific or criminal abuse — often at scale.
And then recently I came across a story that was published years ago on Reddit — and it made me think of Nick and his pink socks. Absent a formal meaning I think the Reddit story is a worthy contender for what the #pinksocks could mean. At least it is to me. It’s also a great road story — for all of us on the journey ahead. Maybe you’ve already seen it (originally posted here), but it’s well worth another read.
This past year I have had 3 instances of car trouble. A blow out on a freeway a bunch of blown fuses and an out of gas situation. All of them were while driving other people’s cars which, for some reason, makes it worse on an emotional level. It makes it worse on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my car, and know enough not to park, facing downhill, on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.
Anyway, each of these times this shit happened I was DISGUSTED with how people would not bother to help me. I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show. The 4 gas stations I asked for a gas can at told me that they couldn’t loan them out “for my safety” but I could buy a really shitty 1-gallon one with no cap for $15. It was enough, each time, to make you say shit like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket.”
But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound effect on me.
He was the guy that stopped to help me with a blow out with his whole family of 6 in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to 4 hours. Big jeep, blown rear tire, had a spare but no jack. I had signs in the windows of the car, big signs that said NEED A JACK and offered money. No dice. Right as I am about to give up and just hitch out of there a van pulls over and dude bounds out. He sizes the situation up and calls for his youngest daughter who speaks English. He conveys through her that he has a jack but it is too small for the Jeep so we will need to brace it. He produces a saw from the van and cuts a log out of a downed tree on the side of the road. We rolled it over; put his jack on top, and bam, in business. I start taking the wheel off and, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones and I wasn’t careful and I snapped the head I needed clean off. Fuck.
No worries. He runs to the van, gives it to his wife and she is gone in a flash, down the road to buy a tire iron. She is back in 15 minutes, we finish the job with a little sweat and cussing (stupid log was starting to give), and I am a very happy man. We are both filthy and sweaty. The wife produces a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a $20 in the man’s hand but he wouldn’t take it so I instead gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I could send them a gift for being so awesome. She says they live in Mexico. They are here so mommy and daddy can pick peaches for the next few weeks. After that they are going to pick cherries then go back home. She asks if I have had lunch and when I told her no she gave me a tamale from their cooler, the best fucking tamale I have ever had.
So, to clarify, a family that is undoubtedly poorer than you, me, and just about everyone else on that stretch of road, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took an hour or two out of their day to help some strange dude on the side of the road when people in tow trucks were just passing me by. Wow.
But we aren’t done yet. I thank them again and walk back to my car and open the foil on the tamale cause I am starving at this point and what do I find inside? My fucking $20 bill! I whirl around and run up to the van and the guy rolls his window down. He sees the $20 in my hand and just shaking his head no like he won’t take it. All I can think to say is “Por Favor, Por Favor, Por Favor” with my hands out.
Dude just smiles, shakes his head and, with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English: ‘Today you … tomorrow me.’
In our travels, sometimes gifters present with a car jack and a tamale. Other times it’s a simple pair of socks to remind us of our humanity and vulnerability. Often their handiwork isn’t visible beyond a single act of unseen kindness, but sometimes we can see it in something as simple as an article of clothing. If you happen to come across someone wearing a pair of #pinksocks, just remember — it’s likely because a lone gifter named Nick decided to make a tribe out of people who were actually presented with more than just a pair of colorful socks. They were also presented with a free and simple choice. To join.