I played golf the other day (don't ask how I did), and because of road construction I drove home a different way than usual. I exited the highway and came into the town of Carmel, a couple of towns over from where I live, on a back road that was unfamiliar to me. I needed gas and saw a station with medium grade at $3.99 a gallon (which, believe it or not, is cheap around here). So I decided to stop and fill up.
I got out of my car, opened the gas cap, swiped my credit card and pulled out the hose. Just as I was inserting the nozzle into my car, I heard a voice.
". . . you give me . . . services . . . "
It was a woman. I didn't catch what she was saying. I looked up and saw a middle-age woman in obviously old clothes -- a tattered jacket and a skirt that looked like it came from the Salvation Army. She had long, unruly brown hair, and blotched reddish skin.
I stared at her for a moment. My guard was up. Who approaches you at a self-service gas station?
"I'm sorry to bother you, sir," she said apologetically. "Could you please give me a ride to Social Services?"
I didn't say anything. What was going on? Finally it registered. She was asking me for a ride. My immediate reaction -- as a former city dweller who got accosted on the street on a regular basis -- was to brush her off and give her a curt no, saying I'm sorry but I'm in a hurry, or late for an appointment, or something like that.
Then I noticed her eyes. They looked genuine; they looked pleading; they looked sad.
"Um . . . er . . ." I looked around. Was this a scam? Is she setting me up for something? Is she accompanied by some big guy with tattoos who's going to jump in the car with her, making some vaguely threatening excuse?
I didn't see anybody.
"I just need a ride to Social Services, here in town," she said, now with some urgency in her voice. "It's not far away."
I looked at her again. I wasn't in a hurry. I had no appointment. I was just minding my own business -- filling up my gas tank, then going home. "Okay," I finally said. "But I don't know where it is. Can you give me directions?"
"Yes, I can show you the way," she replied. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
I looked back down and started pumping the gas. The woman stood quietly on the other side of my car. I looked around again. I didn't see anyone except a well-dressed woman filling up on the next island, with a young child in her car.
I looked at the woman standing there. "So what's your name?" She mumbled something. I didn't hear her. "Sorry," I said. "What is it again?"
"Nancy," she repeated, a little louder.
"Hi. My name is Tom," I said with a friendly shrug of the shoulders. "My sister's name is Nancy."
The woman gave me a nod, but didn't smile or react.
I continued to fill up my tank. Finally the gas shut off. I put the nozzle back and tore off my receipt. I looked across my car again. The woman was still standing there. "So . . . hop in," I said as I opened my door.
The woman opened the door, crouched down and slowly slid onto the front passenger seat. She put a large canvas bag on the floor and said thank you again.
"Just turn right here and go down through town?" I asked as I pulled away from the gas island.
"Yes," she said. Then she explained she had a blister on her foot, and reassured me that Social Services wasn't far away, and she said thank you once more.
She led me through town, then instructed me to turn left at a light. No, not that light. The next one, at the main road. We started heading out of town again. Where were we going? I wondered. I thought she said Social Services was in town. I noticed an odor coming from the woman -- a kind of musty smell you'd find in an attic or a basement. "So it's here in town?" I asked, looking for confirmation. "Not someplace else?"
"Yes," she said.
I drove through two more lights, past a strip mall on the left. Finally, she said, "Turn right up at that next light."
I saw a sign for a county office, in back of a muffler shop. I realized I'd driven by this intersection a hundred times and never noticed the county sign. Why would I? I don't use Social Services.
I turned into the driveway and pulled up to the front door. The woman thanked me yet again. She opened the car door, picked up her bag and slowly hauled herself out of the car. She closed the door, didn't look back, and stood there for a moment in front of the building, getting her bearings.
I put my car in gear and drove off, opening my windows to air out the car. I exhaled a small sigh of relief. The woman hadn't attacked me, hadn't had any kind of emotional outburst, didn't bleed or throw up in my car. Was I stupid to worry about these things? I guess I was; but you never know when you pick up a total stranger.
For a moment, I felt good about myself. I'd done my good deed for the day. Then as I drove home I began to feel sorry for the woman, and began to feel guilty. How could I have even hesitated to help this poor women? I should have slipped her a $20 bill.
Then I wondered, what if the person who'd asked me for a ride at the gas station was a man. I almost said no to this poor woman. Would I have said no if it was an equally desperate man? What if the person asking me for a ride was a black man. What would I have said then?
I don't know. I just hope the woman is okay, and that her blister is better.