Most people have their thing- a thing they do out of charity or goodwill. Mine is helping stranded motorists. And not just any stranded motorist, either. I pretty much have it winnowed down to motorists who are stranded, alone, and in desperate need of human kindness. For most people a dead car battery is nothing more than an inconvenience. I’m pretty good at spotting them, and I ignore them. If someone is on a phone, or outside a coffee shop, or with a friend, I’m perfectly happy to leave him or her be. They don’t need a hug; they need a mechanic. And maybe that’s your thing. But take a person who more than anything needs a personal touch- someone to come to him or her and ask, “What’s wrong?”- my lifelong training in humanism, together with my Myers-Briggs personality type, make those people leap out to me like a light bulb in the darkness.
Last night my family had just finished having a nice meal out and had stopped for gas on our way to Target. As I stood beside our car, I heard the unmistakable sound of a dead car battery clicking from the car on the other side of the pump. My first reaction was to ignore it. I hardly ever wear a winter coat in the car- too damn uncomfortable. Usually, though, I have one with me, just in case. Last night I didn’t, and it was cold. Also, I reasoned, this is a well-lit gas station. The driver will have no trouble finding a jump. But I did look over. From where I stood, I could just see the driver’s left shoulder. I could tell that it was a woman. I saw that she was holding a mobile phone. Perfect. I was ready to let myself completely off the hook. But something wasn’t quite right. I looked more closely and could see that she was not using her phone; she was holding it against the steering wheel, staring at it. Then I saw it- her shoulder shuddered.
Ten feet away from me, in a dark and dead car, a woman sat and sobbed. This was now the sort of situation I couldn’t ignore. Cool guys who talk too much, suits embarrassed that they need help- these are the people I find loathsome. Breaking and broken people I can handle. I ducked my head into our car and told my wife that I needed to help the woman in the minivan next to us. And here I’ll cop to a bit of a flair for the dramatic. I suspected that this damsel in distress was going to prove to be a woman who was nearly at the end of her rope. Most people can fight a long time before they’ll break down like she had. Knowing that, I wanted our short interaction to feel monumental to her. Not for my sake, but for hers. I wanted her to feel like she had been visited by a guardian angel. I wanted it to feel magical. I guessed she was going to need it; hers were not problems that were going to be quickly solved. And, when the thrill of being helped wore off, and she was alone again, I hoped she wouldn’t feel alone. Therefore, I didn’t want her to see me walking up to her. I wanted to appear… So I walked quietly up the length of her minivan.
She looked up to find me standing, smiling, on the other side of her rapidly fogging window. When I looked into her eyes, I knew that I had been right about her. She was done. While she fumbled and struggled to lower the window, I surveyed her car. There were two preschool-aged girls in car seats in the back seat. The window moved slowly, the dash lights dimmed. Yes, this was a dead battery, which we would get to eventually.
“Hi. Do you need a jump or something?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know, “ the woman whispered as she wiped away tears and tried to compose herself, “I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day.” She laughed at her understatement. “I think maybe I’m out of gas. I tried getting some just now, but my card was declined, and I don’t know why. I called my husband. He’s out of town but he’s going to call the place and see if he can work something out. He’s not really even my husband. I mean, we’re not together anymore. Anyway, I pulled in to get gas, my card was declined and when I tried to leave…”
“Oh! Well if you only need gas, let me help you.” Clearly that wasn’t the problem. What are the odds that she would run out of gas at the exact moment she pulled up to the pump? She may well have needed gas, but the car’s battery was obviously dead. Whatever. As I say, she was not in a problem-solving state of mind.
“No. My husband is…No. I’ll…”
“I’m just going to put in ten bucks. Look, I just saved ten bucks at dinner, so it’s practically free. Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered. She was putting everything she had into not crying. “Thank you.” This she barely spoke. She looked at me and mouthed the words.
She got out of the car as I pumped gas. “Just put in five dollars to see if that’s the problem.”
“No, I’m doing a little more than that. Five won’t even get you out of the parking lot.” And, in fact, ten wasn’t much either. I went up to fifteen, hoping that would get her to work and back the next day.
“Thank you so much. I…”
“It’s fine. No problem at all. What are you ladies up to tonight?” This was the personal touch I had been waiting for. I wanted to ask about her. When do you think was the last time someone called her a lady?
“Oh, they had dance class. My other daughter is there right now. I’m on my way to pick her up and…” she sniffled, “I tried calling my brother-in-law, but…” She stopped to compose herself again. “I’m sorry. I’ll just try the car again.”
She climbed back into the driver’s seat. I watched as she turned the key. The needle on the gas gauge went up but nothing else happened. She began to cry.
I reached in and put my hand on her back. “It’s okay. I’m pretty sure it’s the battery. We’ll just jump it.” As I spoke, I rubbed her back, implicitly giving her permission to let go. And she did. For a minute or so neither of us spoke. I simply rubbed her back while she sobbed.
Then she caught her second wind. “Okay, okay. Wait… I don’t even have cables. Do you?”
“Yep. I’ll pull around. Don’t go anywhere!”
So desperate was she to stop sniffling, that she even chuckled at that.
I pulled up, popped the hoods and connected the cables. She tried to start her car right away, before it had any chance to charge. I went to her window and she smiled sheepishly. She knew we needed to let her battery charge a bit, but she felt so badly that she was being a burden and taking up too much of my time that she hoped to hurry up.
I wanted to slow her down. “Things will get better, you know. I promise. From here they have to.”
She smiled, “I know. I hope so.”
“Okay. Let’s try it. Fire this thing up!”
She turned the key; the engine turned over and started. I walked around and unhooked the cables. As I did, she got out of her car and walked up to me with her hand out. I turned down her offer of a handshake, and leaned in for a hug. If ever there was a woman who needed a hug, it was she. And to her great credit, she ignored the potential awkwardness of standing in the freezing cold, wedged between two vehicles and hugging a complete stranger in front of his wife. I was happy to feel some of her stress leave her body.
She took a piece of paper and a pen out of her pocket. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you so much, Tom. You don’t even know.”
“Can I have your address? I want to pay you back.”
She barely held back tears. “Please. I want to,” she whispered. She didn’t have enough energy to both hold back those tears and speak at full volume.
“No. I want to help. It does me at least as much good as you. Believe me.”
And that was true. Many people do much more for strangers. All told, I spent fifteen bucks and a couple minutes on her. And I got a post out of the deal. The truth is all I did for her was acknowledge her pain.
“Okay. Thank you again. Thank you so, so much.”
“You are welcome.”
And that was that. I did end up having one regret later. I wished I had told her about my blog. I bet she would have become a follower.