I was already running late. I had picked up all the kids from their various schools and activities, and everyone was packed into the van, impatient to get home and have their snacks and shed all the cumbersome baggage of the school day. I just barely had time to zip home and unload everyone before locking myself in my room for a phone interview scheduled for 5:00.
But wait, I was almost out of gas! I would never make it home with the needle so low. So I swung into a gas station, charged out of my seat, squirted a few gallons of gas into the tank, hurtled back behind the wheel, and cranked the engine while slamming the door closed.
I tried again. Nothing. The lights came on, but that was it.
It was cold, and snow had started to fall through the darkening air. As the windows fogged over with the breath of nine cranky children, I struggled to hide my rising panic. I had somewhere to be, now.
This was several years ago, before I had a cell phone or AAA [American Automobile Association] membership. My husband was at work, over an hour away, and I couldn’t think of anybody to call. It was, perhaps, not the screamingly horrible emergency it felt like at the time. But I was pregnant, sweating, and I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and lived in constant fear of letting people down. The interview was an important one, and I was already anxious about it even before I thought I might be late for it. Cars lined up behind me, waiting for their turn at the pump where my van lay dead.
I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t think. The toddler began to wail as I climbed out of my seat, hoping that someone behind the counter of the convenience store could give me some advice. But inside was a long line of people waiting their turn. All normal people, competent people, people who had a right to be there, unlike me with my panic and my emergencies and my sweating self and my window-fogging family.
So I crept out again and stood beside the van, clenching and unclenching my fists. The younger kids began to fret, asking over and over, “Mama, what is it? Why aren’t we going, Mama?” and the older ones shushed them, sensing something had gone very wrong.
Then a car pulled up to the pump opposite my dead hulk of a van. It was a sleek little BMW in dark blue. A man in a fitted overcoat and leather gloves stepped neatly out and began to fill his tank. I gathered my courage and called out in a shaking voice, “Hi, hello, I’m so sorry to bother you, but my car won’t start. Do you think you could–”
He turned to look, and saw . . . I don’t know what. A mess. An entanglement. A quagmire. And he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” and turned his back.
I tried again, this time with a pleasant-looking woman in a sable-colored minivan.
“Hi, I’m so sorry, my van won’t start. Do you possibly have a phone I could . . .”
Same story. She looked grieved for me, but there was nothing she could do. She had places to go. She had her act together. She was all tidy and intact and well-planned, and could not afford to get sucked into someone else’s knot of misery and irresponsibility. And I understood! I wouldn’t want to get involved with me and my nonsense, either! But unlike her, I couldn’t just leave.
Not knowing what else to do, I opened the hood of my van to show that I wasn’t just hogging the spot for no reason, and I sat down behind the wheel again. I left the door open so I could breathe, and the cold winter air picked out the hot tears leaking down my face. Nobody was going to help.
And then, someone did. It was one of those grimy people who seem to be outside in all weather. His lips were folded up around his vacant gums, and he wore a baseball cap shoved down over waves of grey hair.
“Ma’am, are you needing some help with your car?” he asked in a deferential voice, as if he might be bothering me.
“Yes! Yes, I am!” I said. “It won’t start, and I don’t know why!”
He asked permission to sit in my seat, and tried to start it a few times, pumping the pedals, jiggling the ignition. No dice.
But he didn’t leave. He said, “You wait here and I be right back. I got a buddy that’s real good with them things.” And before I could respond, he coasted away through the slush on a bicycle. Then up came his companion, a stringy-haired woman in a squashed purple jacket. She said, “You okay, hon? You having a baby? I’m gonna wait here with you until he come back. You be okay.”
She invited me to come sit and wait in her warm car, which was full of Taco Bell trash and crumpled tissues, with a row of faded plushies guarding the rear window. I declined, not wanting to leave the kids. She wasn’t offended, but leaned companionably against my door, apparently ready to wait with us as long as it took.
And it didn’t take too long. The man in the cap came back with his friend, who did indeed know what to do about my van. And it was something so stupid. The gear shifter was a little loose, and it was possible to put it almost in park, but not entirely. If it wasn’t entirely in park, the starter wouldn’t work. So all he had to do was give the stick a little shove, and voila, up she started. He revved the engine a few times to make sure it was all right, then he shut it off, hopped out, and dropped the keys into my hand.
I started thanking everyone profusely, for helping me, for staying with me. The woman said, “Yup, you have a good day, hon,” and away they all went. And I started my car and I went straight home, and everyone tumbled out, and I was only a little bit late for my interview.
And that was it. Life went on.
Here is what I always think, when I think of that day. I think that the people who wouldn’t help me had good, understandable reasons. They had places they truly needed to be, and it wouldn’t have been sensible for them to get involved with a situation that was so clearly on the verge of spiraling out of control. I know how I looked to them, with my rust and my tears and my belly and my crying kids. I looked like something that was not part of their world, and was therefore not their problem.
And I think the people who helped me probably had nowhere else to be. They were just hanging around a gas station in the evening in the snow when I rolled up with my disaster. No one was waiting impatiently for them somewhere else. If they got too close to my oily, rusty circus on wheels, their clothes wouldn’t be ruined, because they were already ruined. They had nothing to lose by giving it a shot.
My life is so much easier now. It is so much more predictable, and my problems tend to be much more fixable. I have a nice phone; I have an emergency service I can call. I rarely have to go anywhere with all the kids, and I can’t remember the last time my upgraded, downsized car wouldn’t start. And if it wouldn’t, I wouldn’t fall apart myself. I wouldn’t take it as a sign of personal failure, and I wouldn’t feel guilty about asking for help.
In short, I now have a lot more in common with the tidy man in the BMW than I do with the wiry little fellow and his friends hanging around the gas station one Thursday evening in the snow. Now I don’t have much in common with those folks at all.
Jesus, help me to change.