Yesterday, the kids and I had an "adventure," as they cheerily called it. We were on a busy freeway in the left-lane for an upcoming left exit, when I felt the car lose power.
I switched on the flashers and headed frantically right. One car let me slide by and I kept going. In the rear-view mirror, the vast white weight of a big-rig bore down on us. I didn't even have time to pray, it was more of a breath--"brake, please stop--" and I kept sliding sideways. At least there, we'd get hit by something smaller. I had my head turned right and ahead, to see where we could manage to go before the car died.
To our right ahead, a police car's light flashed, an officer stopped on the shoulder to give a ticket. But the car, though driving more slowly, kept responding, and as I handed my phone over, one kid found a gas-station two blocks away. I hoped to make it all the way there. "Right or left, right or left?" Too late. The light at the top of the incline turned red just as I reached it.
I stopped the car, my flashers still on. Beside me, on the sidewalk, a beggar, his cardboard sign held out. He was a clean-cut white guy in shorts and a plaid shirt, ordinary mid-Western-looking. I rolled down the window. "Is there a gas-station near here?"
He pointed right. "One that way a few blocks." Left. "One that way about two blocks. You ought of gas?" Now, finally, the light on the dashboard glowed yellow. Since Honda recalled our fuel pump cover and replaced it, the car keeps running out of gas without warning. Clearly, we have to get it back to the dealer. Again.
Cars lined up, irritable. Did I mention a heat-index in the '90's, the kind of humidity that could steam broccoli? Somebody honked. Somebody yelled. "You need money?" asked the homeless guy. "I can give you cash."
"I have a gas can in the car," I said. (Bought the second time this happened, about a week ago.) "We can walk there and bring some back."
"You should steer it to the curb," he said. "When this traffic clears up. Otherwise, you'll get a ticket, and get towed and all that."
I looked at the double line of cars behind us, everybody hot and irritable. "I couldn't do that," I said. "Sure you could," he said. "Coast it." I got the kids out of the car. "Could you do that for me?" He said he could. "I just don't want you to get a ticket." I held out the keys.
A red convertible pulled up behind us, top down. The black woman driving it called, "You need help?" She, too, had a clean, Midwestern vibe to her, her hair long and straightened, her convertible immaculate (unlike my mommy van).
"She ran out of gas," he said.
"Do you have a way to drive to the station? I can take you."
"That's great," said the homeless guy. "I can manage here. Steer the cars around. Last week, one car sat there for twenty minutes. Nobody would let them get around the stall."
"Do we still need to move it?" I asked.
"If she's driving you, it would be fast enough you don't have to worry about getting towed."
Another car pulled up behind her, driven by an older white woman with short, gray hair cut in a straight line above her chin. "You need any help?" she called. I had the gas can in hand by this time. "You need me to drive you to a gas station?"
"Thanks," said the black woman. "I've got this one." My kids hauled the booster seat from my car and loaded it into her convertible's back row. I grabbed the gas can and climbed in front.
"You sure you don't need money?" called the beggar. The woman signaled to move right, around our van. Nobody would let her in.
She edged her car sideways, and snarled at the white guy in the fancy car who blocked her way. "He has to prove he has somewhere important to go," I said, "because he has nowhere important to go." She laughed and put out her hand for a shake. "I'm Fern."
I introduced us back. "Bible names," she said.
"Yes," I said, and left it there. They're also family names, but then, we're Jewish, so it's natural that our family names would also be Biblical. "What do you do when you're not rescuing people?"
"I'm raising eighteen-year-old twins," she said. "Takes a lot of time. I was going to pick up a friend and take her to the doctor, but she'll have to wait." The fancy car passed, and she edged into the right lane, palming her phone and dialing at the same time. I wondered if it was fair to be freaking out when someone was busy rescuing us. She managed the turn one-handed while she told her friend she'd be a titch late, then hung up. "And I'm on disability," she told me. "I just had open-heart surgery three weeks ago."
I eyed her profile. In Sefer D'varim, also known as Deuteronomy, in verse 10, we are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff-necked. "They opened your heart and it's still open," I said. She laughed. "Though I'm sure it was that way before," I said, and she nodded. "Oh, yeah."
I thought of my kid in the back, the one who had been begging me to get a convertible. "My son is in heaven," I said.
She looked at me, startled. "Oh, how terrible."
"No," I said, "I mean, my son in the back is thrilled that he's getting to drive in a convertible."
"I still want to get one," he said from the back, "even though my mom burns in the sun, and we could never put the top down."
The gas station was less than two blocks away. I filled the can with two gallons. Gas leaked. "I'd hate to smell up your car." She opened the trunk so I could put the can in. I hurried back inside and shut the door.
The heavy cross-traffic suddenly opened up so she easily turned left toward the freeway. "Do you think I could offer him money?" Fern turned to me, irritated, mis-hearing that I was offering money to her for her kindness. "No, that homeless man," I said. "It surprised me a little. He was so helpful. And he kept offering us cash. Do you think he'd be offended if I gave him money to thank him?"
She said she did not think so. I pointed to the bus-stop just beside the freeway off-ramp, right next to our van, angry traffic still lined up behind it. "This is a perfect place to stop."
She pulled over. "You have a blessed day," she said. I felt a rush of love and homesickness. "I used to hear that all the time, when we lived in South Central Los Angeles." I hopped out of her car. "Don't forget the booster seat," I told the kids. They wrestled to get the strap out of the slot on the seat. "We loved it there. And they never held it against us that we were black." Fern looked at me, startled, and realized what I had said. "I meant that we were white. Oh, man." She started to laugh, a deep belly laugh. "I am really knocked sideways by this." We shared another true laugh as I got the gas can from the trunk. "You have a blessed day, too," I said, though as a Jew, it probably had a different meaning for me than for her. The whole trip took maybe ten minutes. She was so kind.
We ran for our car, still surrounded by angry vehicles, like ants foaming out of a hole. "I wish you'd advance me some money so I could give it to him," said my oldest. "To thank him."
I set the gas can down. The homeless man took it from me. "What's your name?"
"Mark," he said. He couldn't figure out how to open the valve on the red plastic gas can. "You have to turn the red part. Over the white." called the Hmong cabdriver stuck behind us now. "Turn it, turn it and push down." His voice didn't sound angry, but kind. Mark pushed down. "Thank you," we called. The cabdriver edged into the right lane and around the car.
As Mark poured, I asked my standard question, though in a variant for a beggar--"What do you do when you're not standing here by the freeway?"
"I work nights cleaning," he said. "At an office over there. And I take care of my nine-year-old daughter." That stupid white valve meant we couldn't get all of the gas into the car; I know, I had the same problem with it both times. Mark kept trying, spilling it all over. He turned the nozzle, he squeezed the bottom of the can. Those droplets in the bottom were clearly worth saving to him. We're super tight for money, but I would not worry about that last half-gallon, not with the temperature climbing and a line of cars honking behind us. "I am so lucky that her mother decided to move to Utah and leave my daughter with me. I love being with my daughter."
"How long do you usually stand here?" He listed a three-hour window. I was certain we had gotten as much gas in as we could. We couldn't stand there longer, just talking with him. I took out my wallet. "Would you be offended if we gave you something to thank you for your help?"
"Absolutely positively no." I counted out a five and five ones. "This is from my son," I said. "He wanted to use his allowance to thank you.
We all clambered in the car. "What an adventure," said one child. "I rode in a convertible," said the oldest. "If only she'd had her teenagers with her, I could say, "I rode in a convertible with a cute girl," and nobody would know that the rest of you were there, too."
"We rode in a convertible, we rode in a convertible," sang the littlest. I turned my mind from the image of that semi barreling down on us, and to our rescuers: the white beggar, the African-American woman, the gray-haired white woman, the Hmong cabdriver. I know that some of the kindness came because I am white, driving a mommy van, clean, healthy children by the side of the road. Still, it was real kindness from many. It was, indeed, an adventure, and something that would open the heart, without even having to circumcise it, easy.