Just got back from a nice long vaca in the States. (I just flew in from Bashton, and bahy, ah mahy ahms tahred.) It was still too short, but I was lucky enough to catch up with friends and family, and even solidify a new friendship. Heck, I even got a story out of it.
(Note that this narrative only superficially follows the classic three-act structure, and doesn't obey contemporary models for "good storytelling," because Life doesn't care if anyone options my screenplay.)
Michellle had to head home after two weeks, which gave me an extra eight days to hang out and get up to all sorts of nonsense. I made the most of it, renting a car to go hither and thither. My BFF from Boston had driven down to DelCo, and we split a hotel room in Media, PA. For four days they went their way, I went mine, and we both saved a few bucks. The last of those days was a trip to Reading, PA. It was swell driving up there on some of the old rural roads I used to frequent, and swell seeing my absolutely screwy friend who makes really bad life decisions.
It's about 10:30pm when I'm ready to head back to Media. Normally I'd take those beloved rural roads, but it's too dark to see the sights, gas is expensive, and the dashboard has been telling me since I picked up the car that the rear driver's side tire is about half pressure. So I say "oh well" and do the sensible thing: take the shortest route by heading east (southeast) on 422, toward King of Prussia, where I'll pick up Rte 252S, which gets me right to the hotel.
422 is boring. No real lighting except at exits, and most of the exits are to "nowhere." Not much traffic that time on a Tuesday night. WOGL is playing so many repeats from the last three days, it's hard to believe they own more than one "greatest hits of the 80s" album. You can credit this tedium for my noticing that the tire pressure was getting lower in that sad sack of a wheel. I couldn't feel it, only see it on the display. The PSI should be close to 40. It had been steady 20 for three days. Now it's 10, 9... Fuck.
I take the very next exit as the PSI hits 5: Rte 363/Trooper. I've passed this exit a hundred times back when I took 422 to my job in Collegeville, but I never actually got off here. And... there's nothing at the top of the offramp, just more road with occasional street lights. No traffic. Shit. I randomly pick "left." PSI: 3.
Thankfully, that random pick was a good one, as 1.4 miles later there's an all-night WAWA open in an otherwise-closed mall-ey area, and it's surprisingly busy. I pull in at about 11pm, PSI 0.
(Some context is in order here. My cell phone plan is one of the cheapest in Canada, and the provider has no international coverage. I have a choice: roam and pay through the nose, or pay $12/24 hour period for unlimited US calling/data. I've managed to avoid it so far, and dammit, I really don't want to pay $12 a day for cell service. Now, back to our story...)
My immediate concerns are that using my phone will cost me, and that I have no US change for the air pump. I could go in and buy something at WAWA -- hell, I even have my old WAWA coffee mug with me, but ho!, the pump is free! Woot!
The tire won't inflate. I hear it hissing wetly. Fuck. And fuckin' cheap-ass phone plans. Fine. Fuck.
I call the roadside assistance number on my rental contract, and hear the cash register ring twelve times. They want the street address. I'm like, "WAWA on 363, outside Trooper, just off 422." I'm gently reminded that this is a national service, and that this info is meaningless to them. So I disconnect and use my now-"free" roaming mobile data to check Google maps. I call back with the address. They inform me it will be $78 to change the tire through them, or I can do it myself, or use a third party provider also on my dime. It hadn't even occurred to me that there'd be a tire and tools in the back for me to work with -- I haven't had to change a tire in like a decade, and forgot such things are possible. Turns out there are tools, and a tire, but it's a donut. It's also 11pm, and dark-ish in the parking lot, and I've lost muscle mass in the past few years, and heck, if I change it and don't do a great job, I could kill myself and/or become liable for whatever happens to the car. So I say fuck it, send someone. ETA: 58 mins.
I get coffee, then wait in the car listening to more crappy hair metal repeats, and watch the parking lot in my mirrors. There's someone pushing a loaded shopping cart back and forth, occasionally stopping at cars, which seems weird for this location at midnight. Another car pulls up and uses the air pump. People come and go. 63 minutes later, I get a text update: 23 more mins. Cool. Cool.
Dude shows up 3 mins "early." I think his wife is in the passenger seat. He very quickly and efficiently puts on the donut (nice to have a fancy powered machine in your truck). He finds 2 nails in the tire. Oy. He loads the flat into the back of the rental, says there's nothing to pay because he bills the service. But I tip him $20, despite some legit protestations that it's not necessary.
This is where the narrative takes its "surprising but inevitable turn." (EDIT: No, it's the moment the hero accepts the call to adventure that leads into Act II. Though Joe Campbell would prefer I first refuse, then accept the adventure after an additional consternating event, I'm more a Dan Harmon Story Wheel guy.)
See, I'm in a pretty good mood. I have just hit a landmark of privilege: from my rental car, at midnight, in a foreign country, I fixed my problems with, essentially, a simple "bill me." It's 12:40am, I can't drive more than 50mph, I may or may not be able to put in a claim on my 3rd party travel insurance I bought prior to the trip, but I'm like, "I adulted." I am pleased with myself.
So when the young woman pushing the shopping cart comes up to me and says, "Sir, could you please drive me a mile down the road to the bus stop," I say, "Yes."
The tire guy says, "You're braver than me." I reply, "Paying it forward." And I mutter my new mantra: "Say yes to adventure!"
Note that I'm carefully looking around for her compatriots, and assessing the chances of a carjacking. But I see nothing, and she seems in earnest, and I begin to entertain visions of my heroic, TV-worthy efforts in self-defense should the need arise.
I help her load all her stuff into the back seat. She gets in the front passenger seat and immediately changes the radio to a station mixing rap and pro-Black commentary. It took me five minutes to figure out the radio, but she's a natural, and apparently the new radio boss. And at least it's not Richard Marx. As I start the engine, she explains that her baby daddy threw her out and she has nowhere to go. The abandoned cart drifts through the parking lot on the warm breeze.
She directs me back down 363 the way I had come, pointing at an intersection and then, as I'm about to pull in, says, "No, it's the next one." Oh, okay. We do it again. Again. Well, fuck. And sure enough, the place she finally says is the correct turn is the ramp back onto 422, heading toward KoP. So, it seems, I'm the bus.
Then she says, "Could you help me out with some money?" I lie that I just gave the last of my cash to the tire guy. "Could you help me out with a room tonight?" I gently decline, saying I wish I could do more.
I make sure we don't get on I-76 heading into Philly, and instead end up on Rte. 202 at the KoP mall, which is closed. But she says, "Keep going." She repeats her story, and her request, going so far as to suggest I pull into a hotel on 202 where maybe I could help her out with that room. Oy.
When I again refuse, she tells me to pull into this 7-11-looking place. But it's closed, and I say I don't feel right leaving her off somewhere dark and alone. We keep going. Another room request, another refusal. A more agitated, "Turn here." It's a big intersection. Right after the turn is Pantry Food Mart where she says she can get milk for her baby. Note that there is no baby in the car, and we're now quite a ways from where she started. Also, it's closed. I again state my reluctance to leave her alone in a dark parking lot, so she directs me into the very-open, very well-lit parking garage of the Target across the street.
She says she needs a cart. Lo and behold, a maverick cart is right there. I figure this is the moment, and agree to drop her here. I turn off the car, pocket the keys, then check out the cart. The cart is locked, but she doesn't care. I help her unload her stuff, some onto the sidewalk, some into the cart. I repeat that I wish I could do more, and express my sincere hope that things work out for her, and, less sincerely, I atheistically say, "God bless you." It's then, under these bright lights, that I first notice that she's in an unbuttoned shirt and bikini top, and is several months pregnant. Sigh.
The drive back to Media from there is longer than I remember, longer still on a donut. I almost hit a deer on 252, but it's a place I've hit one before, so I was cautious and it paid off. I pull into the hotel parking lot at 1:28am, a little self-satisfied, but also disappointed that I couldn't -- or wouldn't -- do more. I climb out, reach behind the passenger seat for my bag...
And this is where the narrative takes its final, inevitable turn, because OF COURSE my bag is not there.
At first, I consider blowing it off. I left my computer in the hotel room, after all. I mean, that bag only had my... passport, two credit cards, two pairs of prescription glasses, a tie clip from my dead uncle, recently-acquired pictures of my nephew and niece, and Canadian cash for my return. FUCK. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.
The younger me might have shrugged and called it a night. Mostly out of fear, but rationalized. I can get another passport, cancel credit cards. The lost cash is annoying, and won't help her much, but hey, she needs it more than me, and if she can figure out an exchange, fine. I can get more pics, and I'm not super attached to that tie clip (which is in the form of Reddy Kilowatt ). The glasses will cost me, alas.
The 55-year old me said, "Nope." I got back in, and started back to KoP.
EDIT: Et voila, the turn into Act III.
I'm livid. Engraged. And outraged. I want to drive very fast, but a donut and a few cop cars in the shadows keep me to a civil pace. I genuinely tried to help her. I'm sorry I wasn't willing to buy her a room, or risk whatever she might do to it after I left. I'm sorry I wasn't willing to hand her cash. But to steal from someone who'd been nothing but polite and kind... LIVID.
I started practicing what I'd say -- or do -- when I found her. IF I found her. I imagined driving around for an hour looking for her. I imagined getting into an altercation, and police being called. I imagined finding my stuff gone (hidden, maybe), and being forced to call the police on someone who's evidently having a real shitty time of it and doesn't need more shit. And then I had this inspired notion, a kinder approach, maybe enough to head off any more trouble.
I was almost surprised to find her where I left her, sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by her stuff. And my bag's there. I leave the car, pocket the key. I kneel and start going through my stuff and say, "It looks like you grabbed my bag by mistake." Genius, right? She gets an out, it's non-aggressive, etc.
And she says -- I'm still wowed by this -- she says, "I thought you said I could have it."
And for only the second time that night I looked deeply into her face, and I'm telling you that I'm not sure she didn't believe it. She was not altogether there, whether because of chemical impairment, brain stuff, or just having had enough of this world. She sat there, passive, blank.
She had rifled the bag, moved some things, but everything was still there. Maybe she didn't think I'd come back for it. Maybe she didn't need anything she found, or didn't look too hard. Dunno. I repeated my affirmations just the same. I hope the false God was listening.
On the drive back, I quickly moved from self-congratulation for my "calm bravery" to feeling again that I should have done more. Like, why not use my already-paid roaming data to look for a shelter? Why not give her the American cash I really did have? I know I can't solve her problems, or fix her. But it gave me some real hard perspective on how far removed I am from the troubles of people in her place that I spent way more thought on my bag and our confrontation than I did on how to improve her situation. Still, the anger at the "betrayal" lingered. And still I went back to the hotel.
Got back at 2:30am, and was too wound up to sleep right away. I had to get up at 6:30am (my Boston friend is an early riser), get brekkie, and return the car to the airport by 10am. The tire cost me $145 all in (the changing service, plus the tire), which turns out not to be covered by the 3rd party insurance I purchased. My friend picked me up from the airport, we drove the five hours (plus one hour in additional stops) to the Boston area, where we spent time with their chaotic family and the dogs who really hated me, before I got to bed around 11pm, and slept until 10:30am Wednesday. Slept so late, we didn't get into the city that day.
My friend told my story to their sister, a public defender in Massachussetts, who said I had made a really bad call. What if the cops had stopped us on the road, and she had drugs, a weapon, or a warrant? What if she claimed I had kidnapped or assaulted her? Note that in Mass, being caught carrying a gun in a car is a mandatory 6-month jail sentence -- the sister sometimes represents truckers who are stopped, searched, and jailed for that. PA isn't so strict, but the point is well-taken. I had been concerned first for my own safety, then hers, but not the potential legal risks if things had gone south. So add that to all the other stuff I didn't consider.
I was poor for a couple years, and really poor briefly. Worked a low-end job and made bad decisions (read as "chased trim"). Spent a winter in a cheap, shitty "apartment" with on-again-off-again heat (couldn't pay the propane bill -- the water in the toilet froze over), eating pasta sandwiches for dinner with the one light on, etc. But even then I still had a shelter. And food of sorts. And a car I could gas up to get back and forth to the job I had. Way better than her situation. Nowadays if things turned real bad, I could work at a gas station, liquidate some inheritance and stay afloat, couch surf with friends in a pinch, and, as God as my witness, never go hungry again. But her? Homeless, pregnant, young, black, alone, possibly not of tremendous mental capacity (temporarily?), maybe under-educated... And she's not even in the lowest possible place.
I believe that people in positions of privilege -- like being a middle-aged, college-educated white male professional -- owe more to the community than someone like her does, and that we're all in this together in the end. As a super Lefty, I'm really disappointed -- angry -- with myself that I didn't stop to think beyond "get this woman out of my life" and "I want my bag back." (Wanting my shit returned is 100% okay, as is being angry about the theft. I'm not beating myself up over that.) I could have given her $20, or $40, or gone to a drive-thru, or gotten some groceries. TBH, I could have gotten her a room. I could have slowed down to think about her instead of myself, to at least ask if she would consider a shelter if I could find one. I had enough going for myself to get my rental's tire fixed in the middle of the night, and didn't use it when faced with a real person in need, a person looking me in the face, not some abstract point of sociopolitical discussion among friends. I mean, I even have the privilege of moral self-flagellation via blog while sitting unemployed on the couch in my home, after a three-week international vacation, while complaining that I don't want to do "mindless shit work" just to make a few bucks. And where is she now?
In short: when it was inconvenient, I lacked the courage of my convictions. This stuff -- social justice, poverty, homelessness, etc. -- matter to me. But if people like me find reasons to not step up, or shirk the opportunities that almost literally fall into our laps, how are things going to get better?
My new mantra remains, "Say yes to adventure." My new wisdom is, "Think it through." But my new moral code is, "Do better."
I hope she's okay.