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He was stranded. A stranger offered help and a message: 'Today you, tomorrow me'

Justin Horner's story has resonated with many.
Justin Horner
Justin Horner's story has resonated with many.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


In 2010, Justin Horner was driving down a busy freeway in Portland, Ore., when his tire blew out. He pulled over to the side of the road and made a sign that said he needed help.

Three hours later, a van finally pulled up. Out came a family of four. They were Latino, and their young daughter acted as translator between her parents' Spanish and Horner's English, so that they could work together to fix Horner's car.

They took about an hour, starting with the father finding a log on the side of the road, and using it to lift the car. When they finished, the mom pulled out a big jug of water, and they drank and washed their hands.

"I just thanked them and thanked them and thanked them," Horner recalled. "And I tried to give her money. I only had a $20 bill, and I just thought, you know, it's the least I could do. And she just wouldn't take it."

But Horner was adamant, and eventually he put the money in her hand, and walked away.

Then he heard their small daughter call out, to ask Horner if he was hungry. Indeed he was, and she came over with a tamale from their cooler. They exchanged thank yous, she got into the van, and the family started to drive away.

"As they're trying to get into traffic, I unwrapped the tamale and my money is in the tamale," Horner said. "They had unwrapped the tamale and they'd put the 20 in and then they'd wrapped it back up."

Horner immediately ran over to the van, which was starting to pull into traffic, to get the father's attention.

"He rolls down his window. He sees me coming and he's just shaking his head. And I keep saying like, 'Por favor, por favor' — I'm holding a bill out," Horner remembered.

"And he just kind of puts his hand up and he just, you know, with this big smile on his face, he just says, 'Today you, tomorrow me.'"

The man then gave Horner a wave, rolled up the window, and drove off. The last thing Horner saw was the young girl waving goodbye through the window. He never saw them again.

A few months later, Horner wrote up his story for Reddit, which drew thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. It turned into an essay in The New York Times, led to references on late night talk shows, and inspired a handful of short films.

Horner knows that the phrase, "today you, tomorrow me," wasn't invented by that stranger in the van — he says it's a common expression in Mexico, where he believes the family was from. But its sentiment is universal. And on many corners of the internet, it's become a kind of shorthand for empathy.

"It's weird. It just seemed like some chicken-soup-for-the soul kind of thing, right? Like 'Today you, tomorrow me,' like, 'It could have been you, it could have been me,'" Horner said.

"But when you start taking it apart, it's kind of big. I think at the end of the day, it just shows you that everyone can be vulnerable in a given situation, and that everyone needs help."


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more stories like this.


My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel