I pulled into the gas station (I rarely go to this one) on my way to Starbucks. I'd done my weekend grocery shopping and was on my way back to my wife and daughter to spend the rest of our Saturday together. This gas station - a quarter-mile from my house - usually brings its fair share of mischief with it. Any number of people may offer to wash your windshield for bus money or just ask you if they can have some spare change. When I pulled in, I saw her. Briefly and from a distance I could tell her blue eye shadow looked smeared, either still on from a long night or having made run by tears. She waited near the other set of pumps under the awning, shielding herself from the temperature that was approaching 90. I parked and shut off my engine, got out, unscrewed the gas cap and began the payment ritual of scanning my credit card, entering a zip code, and so on. I assumed the four minutes it would take to fill my tank would be uneventful until I heard her speak up.
I couldn't see much of her, except for her face. She stood on the other side of my car. Her bright blue "Carolina" T-shirt looked a size too big. And dirty. I assumed her story would be like all the rest. She just needed a dollar to make a call or any spare change to catch the bus. I was in a hurry so I already imagined how the conversation would play out. I guessed she was from the women's shelter next door, kicked out for breaking a rule and now left on her own to do whatever she needed to do next to live a life that was the complete opposite of mine.
But she didn't ask for money. She asked for a ride. In my car.
"Can you take me out to White Bridge Road, sir? My boyfriend was angry and dropped me off here with all of my stuff and I have to get to my mom's place on White Bridge. Can you take me?"
I had cracked the case of the smeared makeup. She fought back more tears as she asked.
The request was absurd, one I'd not heard before. She wanted no change to buy food or make a call. She wanted a lift. I quickly scanned the gas station. I saw two other cars. I saw no stuff that needed taking to White Bridge Road. I didn't know why she was crying and as she asked, I really didn't take the time to analyze why she needed a ride so bad. To the point of tears bad. In less than 90 seconds my tank would be full and I could go get a tall iced Chai.
"I'm sorry. I really can't do that right now," I replied. It was true. Take a complete stranger somewhere? I'm a father and a husband. If she's starting up some elaborate con to fool me into letting her ride shotgun only to end up somewhere on the other side of town where someone else lay in wait for me so that they can take my car, my money, my iPhone or my life - well, that's not on my to-do list for today.
She nodded and fought back more tears, sniffing. I felt guilty, but certainly she could call someone who knew her to come get her and her disappearing stuff from this gas station. Surely her mom on White Bridge Road would eventually come and pick her up.
The pump clicked and she walked away. I reholstered the nozzle and twisted the cap on and climbed inside my car. I started the engine and watched the needle ascend to the F. Cool AC filled the cabin and I shifted into drive.
The two other cars soon left and that's when I saw it. Four baskets - one full of dirty clothes; one with toiletry items; one with folded clothes; one with the things you might grab on your way out of the house when someone you thought you loved was threatening to harm you. As I noticed them from my front seat, I realized the woman had it bad. As I looked from the pile of stuff back to her, that's when the manager came out.
"You can't harass my customers!" he yelled. "Get away from here! Now!"
"I'm trying!" she shouted back, pleading in a way I'll never understand. She tried to make her case, like he was the judge and jury considering whether or not to grant her and four baskets a stay on his pavement until help could arrive. "My boyfriend dropped me off here. I don't have a phone. I'm trying to get someone to come pick me up!"
"I don't care what happened to you." He couldn't have been more clear. "This is a business and you can't beg for money here."
"I'm not asking for money. I just need a ride. Can I use your phone?"
"No!" He sounded like a man who runs a gas station next to a women's shelter that expels members from time to time and when it does they come next door and ask people who are filling cars with gas for any loose change. He has dealt with his share of complaints and in order to live his American dream he's got to set rules and stick to them, no matter how runny eyeliner gets and how different a case may be when someone's dirty laundry - in every sense of the phrase - is right in front of you.
She broke down at his rebuke and made her way back to everything she owned. I imagine those twenty steps felt like a mile. In any crisis situation, a list of possible options runs through your head. But, when you're out of options, only fear can set in.
The entire confrontation took no more than 15 seconds, but in that time I knew I was her only option. I swung my car around and rolled down the passenger window. "She lives on White Bridge Road?" I asked. "What part?"
"The apartments near the Shell station." She said, rubbing away tears so she could focus on answering the questions of a man who only a half-minute ago declined helping her in any way.
I looked out the window at her baskets. "This is everything? Everything that needs to come with you?"
"Yes." She sobbed and sniffed, tears of sorrow mingled with tears of hope that I'd let her toss her crap in my car and take her somewhere.
When you realize you are someone's only option, decisions are less difficult to make. The common bond that we all share as humans - on our best days - demands that we recognize when someone is at the end of their rope and give them an inch or two of ours. I didn't give her a ride because one day I - or someone I love - will be in her shoes and I hope the karmic gods will be on my side. I gave her a ride because it was the right thing to do - the only thing I could do. There is no score to be kept. Do not listen to anyone who sells you the idea that you're supposed to help people because then they will help you. That's not help. That's a transaction. You help someone because they need helping and you - sometimes only you - can provide the help.
"Let's go," I told her. I parked my car and helped her load her stuff in my back seat.
She got in and the car filled with cigarette smoke and the voluminous amount of perfume she used to cover up the smell of cigarettes and everything else. Alcohol, sex, drugs, blood - I don't know how many aromas she had on her. She was now in the front seat and we were headed west.
"What happened?" I asked as I drove onto the interstate.
"He just dropped me off here. Two months ago he cut off all my hair. You see, he likes to drink and he was drunk today and we got into a fight. I fought back and then he grabbed me and a bunch of my stuff and threw us into the car and drove us here."
"Do you live nearby?" I certainly didn't want a drunk lover following me as I took his (ex-, I hope) girlfriend to her mom's house for refuge.
"No. We live near the airport."
"That gas station is a long way from the airport. Why did he drop you off there?"
"So I couldn't make it back home. It's in the middle of nowhere. He dropped me off there so I'd be helpless."
"Do you have any kids?" Please God, don't let there be a kid in the middle of this madness.
"Yes, but not with him. She lives with her father and I only see her sometimes."
She kept wiping away tears the entire ride. I stopped asking questions. She'd had plenty of men berating her that day and after I dropped her off, our relationship would be over. I didn't need to know anything else.
"Thank you," she said once her face was finally dry. "I don't have any money to give you for taking me. I have $68 in food stamps if you want to use my EBT card to go get some groceries."
"That's not necessary," I replied. "But thanks for offering."
"He threw my phone out of the window as we were driving," she continued. "It has all my numbers in it. There was no way I could call anyone. These days, you just program all the numbers in your phone. I don't have anyone's numbers memorized except my mom's. I called her but she didn't answer and then I remembered she's out of town this weekend."
"Do you have a key to get in?" I asked, making sure there was somewhere she could go.
We rode in silence until the exit ramp.
"I guess I learned my lesson. About the phone. Maybe my next phone I won't put in any numbers so I'll memorize them in case this happens again."
Learned your lesson? Happens again? I wanted to stop the car and tell her that nothing that happened today was her fault. That the abusive actions of a drunk man, the rigid rules of a business owner, the convenience of technology - she was not to blame for any of it. And there was nothing to do to prepare for another time except to call the police to get a restraining order. That number is easy to memorize.
But I didn't. I stayed silent until she spoke again.
"Her apartment is just up here. On the left. Where that van is turning in."
I pulled into the complex. It had that run-down look of a community that used to be nice but over the years as ownership changed hands no one saw a real need to improve things. As long as occupancy stayed high and rates stayed the same, why spend more than you have to? The constant lull of cars whizzing by on White Bridge Road would always remind tenants that for as little as they're paying for a small place near a busy road, they didn't really deserve fences without broken planks, freshly painted railings, or matching roof shingles.
"This is it," she pointed. "Thanks."
"My name's Donna," she offered. She smiled.
"I'm Sam. It's nice to meet you, Donna."
She said she could get her stuff out of the back. I watched as she did and then walked to her mom's door. She turned the key and walked inside. I don't know what that door opened up to - a familiar, safe place; a drunken boyfriend; memories of regret. But I had fulfilled my promise. My shift was over.
I pulled out of the complex and headed toward my wife and daughter, worlds away from what just transpired a few miles down the street. Many times, we have the chance to help someone and we don't take it. Normally, we do this out of convenience. The ask is too great (we don't have the amount that nonprofit needs), the time is too much (we can't devote an hour a week for a year to the mentorship program), or the opportunity doesn't feel right (what are they going to do with the money I give them?). But in reality, the opportunity to really help someone - to be their only option - will be the most inconvenient thing in your life. But it's those times that allow us the chance to truly give something to someone else.
We must give until it costs us something. We must give when someone else can offer nothing in return. We must give until we have nothing left. Our shared humanity demands it.