02/19/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Two Tails on the Road to Redemption

I recently read the story of a woman named Soma Sengupta, who duped her way into an almost brilliant legal career in the U.K. Sadly for her, she didn't cover the lies about her background very well and wound up on the other side of the defendant's table. From the outside, she seemed legit, a great reminder that in the free world people can achieve their dreams. She might have lived the life of a respectable barrister were it not for the eagle eye of a law clerk who caught her mistake -- listing a birthday on her application that would have made her 29, which was clearly impossible. (Apparently, she listed four different birthdays on her various documents -- another classic rookie mistake.) Once the birthday issues came to life, a web of alleged deception quickly unraveled.

It made me think that while we all tend to exaggerate to look good at times, most of us don't meet people whose professional lives are later revealed to be a patchwork of fact, fantasy, and outright lies. We take them at face value. If anything, the opposite situation is often at play -- we tend to make positive or negative judgments based on a person's looks, demeanor, and stereotypes, and these judgments often turn out to be totally off base.

That lesson was driven home at the end of last spring, during a walk around my favorite pond. The air was warm and dry, the perfect time to be in New England. I nodded and chatted with the pond regulars and noticed some new faces: The city had brought in a clean-up crew to tidy up the walkway around the pond. The crew members, decked out in orange T-shirts, were doing community service as part of their restitution for minor crimes or in lieu of harsher punishments for their misdeeds.

I pretty much ignored the crew, with the exception of one guy. He scared me. Six-foot five, easily 240 pounds, tattoos on every spare inch of dermal real estate, and a big scar on his face. It all spoke of rough times he'd surely seen in his life. He also struck me as the kind of person with whom you did not want to make eye contact. Although I didn't feel I was in any real danger, I walked gingerly by him.

The crew members came to clean up once a week, but the following week they were back for several days due to a storm that had kicked over some trees, obstructing the pond's walking path. This particular day, I saw the group of orange-clad men hunkered down around a hollowed oak tree that had snapped, leaving a jagged stump about two feet tall. Something was intriguing the crew about the remains of the tree, including Big Scary Guy. I couldn't resist looking, too. Inside the stump, there were two baby raccoons that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. Big Scary Guy put on his gloves and reached into the hole, picking up both animals, one in each hand, and cuddling them to his chest. It was quite a sight, the babies burrowing under his beefy triceps, much happier to be snug and warm.

I suggested calling the MSPCA, which conveniently had an office around the corner.

"But won't they put them to sleep?" Big Scary Guy asked, his deep raspy voice edged in a touch of alarm.

"Not unless they're sick," I said. "If they're healthy, the MSPCA will release them into a wildlife reserve."

"You sure?" he asked suspiciously, eyes squinting.

"I guarantee it." I said this before thinking it through, what might happen if I was wrong. "I'll wait while they come, okay?"

Big Scary Guy sat on a bench with the raccoons clinging to his chest. The supervisor seemed all right with that -- probably thought it was a sign of compassion, rehabilitation, or at least something positive.

Twenty minutes later, an MSPCA minivan pulled up by the tree. A young man who was as bright and bushy-tailed as the raccoons jumped out to see his new charges. "You'll be releasing them to the wild, right?" I asked.

"For certain. We'll probably need to wean them at our facility, but as soon as they're old enough, we'll take them to their new home."

Big Scary Guy handed the critters to the MSPCA guy, who placed them in a cage and zoomed off. He then turned to me and asked, "What's your name?"


"Thanks, Rob."

"What's yours?"


"I'll call the animal people in a couple of days and see how the babies are doing, Joe," I assured him.

As promised, I checked in with the MSPCA office two days later and learned that the raccoons were getting plenty of human help, and would soon be returned to the safety of the wildlife reserve. I couldn't wait to tell Joe.

When I next saw him, I marched right up and before I could say anything he asked, "How are our raccoons doing, Rob?"

Wow, our raccoons. We had a bond. "They're doing just fine."

"Thank you," he said smiling softly, our hands meeting in a solid shake.

Well, the cleanup was done, and I figured that was the end of my encounter with Big Scary Guy, who I now knew as Joe. He turned out to be a kindly soul in a scary wrapper. His image, I figured, was probably essential for his survival, just like protective coloration can level the playing field for animals in the wild.

It turned out that the great raccoon rescue was just act one of the life drama that brought Joe and I together at the pond. A couple of weeks later, I was leaving for a quick trip to the South Shore. I had two choices: the long cut, or the short cut, which took me on the outskirts of a high-crime area. I didn't mind the short cut, because I'd only be there for a minute or so before zooming onto the highway at warp speed.

To my dismay, my normal route was cut off due to a city-wide event and the police were directing everyone to a detour route. Unfortunately, the detour signs ended before the highway, and I quickly found myself totally lost... in my shiny, new Range Rover. A basketball flew into the street from an adjacent court, and I instinctively jammed on the breaks. A young man retrieved the ball but stood looking at the car. Soon several others joined, kicking the tires and yanking the mirrors. I felt for sure someone was going to scratch the car. On the other hand, the hell with the car. What about me? I imagined how the headlines the next day might read. Then, as if I was in a scene from a biblical movie, a deep voice boomed, "Leave him alone." I looked up and there was Joe. He motioned for me to lower the window.

"Rob, you don't want to be down here. Go to the next stop sign and take a right. Keep going straight, and you'll get on the highway.

Then he walked back to the sidewalk, the younger basketball players looking at him with awe and respect.

As I punched the accelerator and watched the scene of the incident recede in my rear view mirror, I thought about how crazy off-based I was about Joe. And then I began to wonder: How many other people had I misjudged because of my preconceptions based on their outward image and demeanor? This experience helped me turn my harsh judgments into compassion and understanding. How about you -- are there any closet raccoon savers in your life?

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