Sunday, December 29, 2013
9-8-13 RMB Asking for Help
9-8-13 RMB Asking for Help
Dear Rita Mae Brown,
It’s a Sunday and as I run errands, I hear the clank of a soda can left in my backseat by one of the boys. “Arrgh” I tell them over and over again that my car is not a trash can, nor a place for recycling bottles and cans, nor their toy box. Yet, after nearly every visit, there are toys and sticks in my backseat. I swear, if they were not so firmly seated in the center of my heart, I would ban them forever from my vehicle. As it is, I collect their treasures, remembering how thrilled they were to find the perfect sized walking stick and I picture the restaurant menu they colored as I scrape melted crayon from my upholstery.
On this particular day, the sound of the clanking can takes me back to one dark night in my eighteenth year. At the lowest level of management, I inherited the closing shift of our burger joint in an ethnically mixed, not so affluent, neighborhood. The entire crew was years, sometimes decades, older than I was. Often I felt like they listened to me as a favor. “Be nice to the youngster.” If nothing else, I knew they respected my work ethic. I give thanks to Dad for that. The Marine Corps upbringing instilled: if there’s a job to be done, do it and do your best.
One evening, as we wrapped up, after midnight, I asked how everyone was getting home. They were adults, but I was concerned about those that walked and tried to make sure they paired up or gave each other rides. One young man did not live near anyone else. He assured me he could make it home on his own. I said, “I’ll take you home.” He tried to decline by telling me it would not be safe for me to be in his neighborhood, which made me want to see him home safely all the more.
So this little, white, wet behind the ears, girl took the big twenty-four year old black man, that seemed more like a boy to me, to his home. He was right. I did not feel safe. He told me to lock my doors as he got out of the car. I found my way back to the freeway easily enough, but as I was trying to figure out how to get home from there, I had my first flat tire…ever.
I was clueless about what to do, but pretty sure I knew the direction I was headed would take me to the freeway that would get me home. I would walk home and figure out what to do about the tire in the light of day. It would be a long walk, two or three hours. But, I was confident my legs would carry me home.
A half an hour or so into my trek, my confidence waivered. I realized the freeways did not connect as I thought they would and I was off course. Hmph! I considered backtracking. I was still trying to decide what to do when a car pulled up.
“You need a ride?” An old black man yelled out from a beat up station wagon.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just going to find a phone to call a friend.” I lied.
“Get in, I’ll take you to one.” He insisted.
“No, really, I’m fine.” Liar.
The car crept alongside me. “You can get into the back, if you want. See, I can’t reach you there.” He put his arm back over the seat and pointed to where he expected me to sit. I thought, Oh, great, it’s out in the open that I expect him to assault me, glad we can discuss this so calmly.
I weighed my options. It was obvious he was not going to leave me there. If we drove someplace, maybe we would at least be around other people. It was two in the morning and there was no one in sight. “Okay, just to the next exit. There’s probably a gas station there and I can call my friend.” I had an ulterior motive, to look at a map and figure out how the hell to get home.
My plan was still to walk it, thinking I must have made some progress in the general direction of home. I had never asked a favor of anyone and I was not about to start. Friends and family may dispute my claim about not asking for favors previously, but the stubborn eighteen year old I was that night determined I could handle this. Having recently asserted my independent status by moving out of my childhood home, I thought I was acting as an adult. In reality, my behavior was closer to that of a stubborn child.
I got in the back. He offered to fix the seat for me. It was down and the back was full of empty cans, clanking away. I smelled alcohol and hoped it was coming from the cans and not his breath. I insisted he stay there and drive. “No, this is good. Go ahead and drive. I’m okay here.” No, I was not.
He pulled off at the next exit. There was a gas station with a phone booth. They were still in operation then. This was before cell phones. He smiled at me. “You sure? I can wait till your friend comes.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Yep, lied again. As he pulled away I stood leaning against the phone booth, looking at the gas station, the closed gas station. I didn’t want a phone. I wanted a map, damn it!
I paced around. The gas station was in the middle of a neighborhood. It was a nice enough area, but it offered me no clue where I was. I didn’t recognize the street name. I walked a couple of blocks. I didn’t recognize the next street, nor the next. I contemplated walking back on to the freeway, but did not want to risk running into another pushy Good Samaritan.
I swallowed my pride and walked back to the phone. I called my roommate. The phone woke her. “What? Where are you???” I didn’t know. I explained where I had dropped off my employee and the path I had walked. I gave her the name of the exit we took to the gas station. “Stay there, it will take me a while. Stay there, okay?”
“Okay. I will. I’m sorry.” I was in tears, not because I was it was the middle of the night and I was scared. I was in tears because I was angry. I wanted to be a grown up able to take care of myself and I had failed. The disappointment I felt in myself seared me, burning the inside of my chest. It caused tears to boil out of me and scorch my cheeks. The temper that I often turn on myself was in full force that night.
It didn’t help that my roommate was upset with me for not finding a phone and calling her right away. I tried to explain that I could have walked, if I had known the roads better. I silently determined to study a map. She insisted I would be upset with her if the tables were turned.
That night she tried to teach me that part of being an adult is knowing when to reach out for help. She illustrated in example after example how friends look out for each other. It has been a long hard lesson for me to learn. I didn’t learn it that night. I’m not sure I’ve learned it yet, but I am grateful for her attempt to teach it and I am grateful to the man who helped a wet behind the ears white girl find her way home.
Many, many thanks,