Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Would You Do?

     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.



Mac n' Janet said...

Our world has changed and not for the better. When i was growing up no one would have hesitated to help the woman or a man, now it's hard, who do we help?
I don't know if we would have given her a ride, perhaps called a taxi for her and paid.

Douglas said...

The next to last hitchhiker I picked up was in Texas in 1971, just west of Houston, he chatted about death until I left him off at Las Cruces a little after midnight. Maybe I should have given him a ride...

Meryl Baer said...

If I was alone in a car I would not pick up anyone. As a woman I just feel it is too dangerous nowadays. I give you a lot of credit for doing the right thing.

Tom Sightings said...

Actually, when I mentioned this incident to B, she also came up with the idea of calling and/or paying for a taxi. That never occurred to me.

But Douglas, that begs the question: who and when was the LAST hitchhiker you ever picked up? Sounds like there's a story.

Anonymous said...

I help people to get food, actually cook it and listen and help them to get social services in our town..When women such as you helped come to where I volunteer they are taken to a place to freshen up and if that means a shower or bath so be it, they are given rest and when they are rested can select new clothing, then a social worker helps them to what they need, it has been sufficatingly hot and humid here and no one is turned away, I don't care what a person looks like smells or lack there of if they turn up where I volunteer our volunteers are trained to help and esp. elderly women..You should have been nice and generous, she was someone's kin and for that you should have been forthcoming..Carmel area oh, my goodness one of the most expensive areas in the whole USA to be poor and down and out! Many came from where you live, they could never live there no services in the great state of California, the state has turned it's eyes and ears and hearts away to poor people, I am a Californian by birth but not by living Washingotn state for 35 years and 10 in Colorado before that, those states help people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Janette said...

I would not feel guilty. Instead something like that simply reopened my eyes to how many need help. Having an open and generous spirit is what counts. Thank you for driving her. There will be others , now you are ready to see them.

rosaria williams said...

You did good!

Stephen Hayes said...

I remember my dad telling me that after the war (WWII) people would pick up strangers and hitchhikers all the time without even thinking about it. To bad we no longer live in those days. You were right to be cautious and I like to think I'd have done much as you did. I think you can rest easy on this one.

Kelly@Try New Things said...

I think that what you did was amazing but even more so that all the people who read this story will think twice before saying no because they will remember your experience.

You can always retrace your steps and get a do-over. Go back and tell social services that you have an envelope for her and leave her a gift. I bet it has been a long time since she got a gift.

Linda Myers said...

I'm embarrassed to admit I would probably have said no.

The last hitchhiker we picked up was in Vermont, near a rehab center. Even from the back seat we could smell the alcohol. We figured he'd decided rehab wasn't for him. He was polite but smelly.

No idea why I didn't feel safe until we dropped him off.

DJan said...

When I was younger, living in Colorado, I would occasionally pick up hitchhikers. I never had a bad experience, but these days I don't do it. If I had been in your situation, I would have given her a ride, because I wouldn't have known how to say no. said...

I think you were conned.

I was driving to work one day and while stopped at a light, an elderly black woman got into my car and asked for a ride. I took her to my building and then told her that was as far as I went. She walked to the bus stop and as far as I know she rode the bus from there or hitched another ride.

I think I was conned into giving someone a free lift, but I learned a good lesson. After that I kept my side door locked. Dianne

Suzanne said...

I picked up an old man several years ago who was carrying two bags of food. The bags looked heavy, so I pulled up and asked if he would like a ride. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the man had dementia or possibly even Alzheimer's. He could not remember his address or how to get home. I ended up driving him to my church and leaving him with the pastor.

Point is, I thought I was being "selective" with my help because he "looked" harmless. For all I know, he might have been looking for his car in the super market parking lot when I interfered and confused him.

I have learned to mind my own business and not engage at all if approached. Sounds heartless, but the world is just too strange a place to take chances.

Dick Klade said...

I don't know what I would have done. That is distressing. My wife and I recently gave a lift to a women who said she needed help getting her groceries home. Had I been alone??? What you did is impressive and wonderful.

Barb said...

I doubt you were conned. I tend to be of the "no good deed goes unrewarded" and "there but the grace of.." philosophy. I think you did the right thing. I have given people rides, and in fact recently I gave a woman at a gas station twenty dollars. I'm not sure that you can ever be sure, but I try to err on the side of helping-and of doing with, not just for. Having said ll that, as a woman alone were it a man, I probably would have either called my son or called them a ride and paid.

Tom Sightings said...

Aside from everything else, I figure the $20 might be a big help to her -- so it's worth the risk because even if I've been conned, so what, the $20 means virtually nothing to me. So next time I'll make the offering. But ... is it insulting to the woman?

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous here in Washington state we are inundated with Californians fleeing for their lives, the food stamp debacle there is ridiculous, fingerprinting people, oh, my goodness! I worked food commodities in Ventura county in 1970 and 1971 I never turned anyone away for food, it was donated from the agriculture there in that county, now one cannot even get that, shame on the Golden state, they don't care about hungry homeless and the poor which makes up a huge amount of citizens, they are fleeing to Oregon which has the most unemployment for the population of that state and hunger issues. Something has to be done to help the hungry and homeless and poor!!!!!!!!!!!!

Laura Lee Carter aka the Midlife Crisis Queen said...

WOW! Thanks for sharing your experience Tom. Great question, what would you do and why... as the poor get poorer and the government does very little to help those most in need.