`Not an actual picture from the story.
Actually a night picture from Dublin.~
Last night I was driving home from work. Given the two hundred mile commute and my 40-mile bladder, I stopped in at the rest area to empty said bladder, mooch a free cup of coffee and a couple cookies and be on my way. Normally it would be just a quick stop and then I'm on the road again (sorry, Willie).
This stop was longer than usual. While I stopped, I finished listening to a radio episode of Selected Shorts: it was the short story by Audrey Niffenegger "The Night Bookmobile." Then all I needed after all was the coffee and cookies.
Up at the volunteer hutch between the bathroom buildings, a young woman was telling the coffee volunteers that she's out of gas and she ran out of the house without her driver's license or wallet. The volunteers ask me how far the next exit is--like I would know!!
I explain I just drive between Seattle and Portland and I get off at rest areas and I don't really pay any attention to actual exits. The woman has stepped back and is trying not to cry and listening, but it doesn't sound helpful. Then some trucker steps up and tells me that the next exit is only ten miles to the south, I say thanks, but I wasn't the one who wanted to know, I was just here for some coffee.
The volunteers look back to me and say, "Oh yes," and they take my cup and give me coffee. They say, "we can't really leave here; we're dropped off, and he can't drive because he has Parkinson's." (Which explains something else that I had noticed, namely that the man had an old scar, rectangular-looking running from the one side of his head, across and above his forehead and back the other side of his head towards the back. It looked rather like a temporary lid had been put in, but you don't like to ask about those things. [some kind of brain surgery was and may still be a palliative treatment for Parkinson's])
Anyway, the woman went over to the pay phones and put some money in and dialed and then waited, hung up and the change dropped back. So I asked (since I have a cell phone), "Is there anyone I can call?" I know, it sounds stupid, but I didn't know what else to say.
She said, "No, I've tried calling, but no one's answering, and my family is out of state on Spring vacation. My girlfriend called me up to come pick her up, she's finally getting out of a bad situation and I just ran out to my car and started out and didn't bring my purse or my wallet or anything. Then I noticed I was low on gas, so I turned around and idled into here."
I have to say here that I am really, really suspicious of people in need at rest areas, and especially people with gasoline issues at rest areas. I mean, how did they even get there if they don't have gas? And if you give them money to help get them back to Arkansas or Montana or New Mexico or whatever isolated outpost of Americana they claim to be from, how are they going to actually get gas if they're out as they claim!!!
But I ask her, "If you got a lift to the next exit, do you have anything to put gas into?"
"No," she says, "and I don't have my wallet even, I ran out of the house without it. I might have enough gas to get to the next exit, but I don't want to chance it and have to walk in the dark on my own."
"Would it help if I followed you to the next exit?"
"Well, if you wouldn't mind...."
"No, that would be fine. I'll follow."
She goes down a ways to her car and I go to mine. I get in and start up and let her drive past, then I pull out behind her. No doubt to improve gas mileage, she's going 60 in a 70 zone. But I follow at a safe distance anyway--but not so far as to make her think I'm abandoning her. We turn off at the next exit and there's a gas station. There's also a car following me through the exit off the freeway, so I'm starting to sweat bullets in 45 degree weather, hoping that someone back there isn't getting ready to put them back in me. She turns right toward the gas station, I turn right, the third car turns right. She pulls into the gas station parking lot, I pull into the gas station parking lot....the third car drives past.
Man, I hate being a coward!
Anyway, I get out, she gets out. I ask, are you going to be okay? And she does start to get red-eyed again and mentions that she still doesn't have any money. (and you're thinking, well, duh!! nothing changed in ten miles except she's at a station instead of ten miles away, but she didn't suddenly come into possession of the wallet she said she left at home!!)
And then I wrestle with my thoughts: I hate being stupid, I hate being in a position of being taken advantage of by a con artist. On the other hand, if she's acting she really should be on film or stage because it doesn't look a bit faked to me. On the other hand, it's not like I have expert social skills in knowing when someone is really telling the truth or faking crying. On the other hand, I really want to help if the need is real and I can help.
Oh well. I decide given how bad gas prices are, offering to fill up her car would approach painting the word "Sucker!" on my forehead; also given how bad gas prices are, offering anything less than $10.00 of gas might not get her any meaningful distance towards home and her wallet where she needs to get so that she can start her trip over right and fill herself up.
"Listen," I suggest,"I can't fill up your car, but if you drive over to the pump, I'll go in and have them put ten dollars on the pump. Would that be enough to get you back home and you could get your wallet?"
"Yes. And give me your name and address I'll send you the money in the mail."
I go inside and pay the cashier.
I come back out, and she pulls down the hose and puts the ten dollars in her car. As she's filling, she says again, "If you just write your name and address on a paper, I'll get the money back to you."
"Thanks, but if you'll forgive me, I think it's okay if you just keep it. You, know I...."
"No, I understand...strangers, right?"
"Yeah, right." Momentarily, I think about offering to give my email address, but she doesn't really want a conversational relationship, she just was in an awkward and embarrassing position and didn't want to be thought of as somebody trying to con or cheat ten bucks of gasoline from a gullible stranger. And it seems self-evident now, but I hadn't thought about it until I read it recently somewhere, but it's ungallant and NOT selfless to try and make some deeper acquaintance out of helping somebody. It's like taking advantage of THEM. So I just ask again, will that be enough to get you home or to your friend? She says, I'm going home and get my wallet, and then I'll go get her. She'll be there, because she told me she ran down the street."
"Okay, then. Well hope it goes okay." (Literature is what we have to save us from the boredom of what dull real people actually say. That, of course was not literature.)
As I drove back on to the freeway, I thought again how much I hate that I would even have any reason to think someone might be trying to trick people out of money at a rest area; how much I hate the several minutes of fear as I thought it might really be a scam with a confederate following in the car behind me, waiting to spring the trap and perhaps even thump on me as they decide what they're going to take from me or my car. And I worried whether 3.324 gallons of gas would really get her where she was going. (It was an older Toyota; figure around 20 miles to the gallon, lower bound and she'd have about 66.48 miles, not counting whatever fumes she had still had in the car before she added the gas.)
So I was replaying everything, second-guessing whether I had really helped enough, was I a mark in a con, was the real con getting my name & address (which she didn't do) for use in a later, bigger con or identity theft? Then, on the radio, Harry Chapin came out of no where and sang "Taxi."
And I felt better. It is, of course, making too much of it to think "it was a sign." But having said that, Harry Chapin is just a comfort in so many ways. He was philosophical, sophomoric, philanthropical and inconsistent. His song coming on just then make me think that what ever had just happened was as okay as I could make it, and to quote from Dick King-Smith's book, Babe, the Gallant Pig, "That'll do ...That'll do" (118).
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
`Not an actual picture from the story.