There but for the grace . . .

The morning I left Oklahoma, I stopped at a gas station near Oklahoma City. I had to fill the rental car because otherwise I think they make you hand over a kidney when you attempt to turn it in half-empty.

As I got out of the car, I saw a guy approaching me from my left. He got out of a car that was parked on the other side of the gas pump. He looked to be in his mid-20s and was wearing black pants and a grey jacket.

"Hi," he started. "We're trying to get home to Texas and we just need some money for a pump for the car." He told me what kind of pump he needed but I can't recall. A water pump? Fuel pump?

I looked over at the car. I'm not into cars but I think it was a 1980-something Mustang. It seemed plausible that it could, indeed, need all sorts of parts. The guy held up a driver's license and pointed back at the car. "This is my wife's Texas driver's license, just so you know this isn't a scam or anything. That's my wife - she's six months pregnant." A young woman in the back of the car jutted her hand forward and stuck it out the passenger's side window, waving just slightly. She was wearing dark sunglasses. I could not tell if she was pregnant. An unshaven man sat behind the steering wheel. I glanced at the license, which looked like it had seen the inside of a washing machine a few times.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't live here and I really don't have any money."

I don't know why my place of residence had anything to do with the situation at hand. I felt like a goober for saying it. He nodded and went on to the next pump, approaching an older guy who was leaning against his Toyota as the tank filled.

I watched this young guy go from pump to pump. This was a large and busy gas station. Each person in turn shook his head, frowning as I had when I said no. As if to say, "I would if I could, man. Sorry."

The truth was, I only had about $17.00 in cash on me. I needed some money to get through the airports on the way home - lunch, tipping the skycap, bribing my kid with snacks, etc. As I stood there pumping gas into the car, though, I began to feel I had made a mistake. I looked at my car and took stock. Sure, it was an oldladymobile and a rental, but it was a 2010 oldladymobile. My daughter sat in the back of the car, watching "Peter Pan" on her portable DVD player. I glanced at my GPS, which was attached to the front window. My iPod sat on the seat, charging its battery via the cigarette lighter. P and I basically live paycheck to paycheck. I buy things I shouldn't. We are still paying on an adoption loan and our daughter is four and a half. And yet, life isn't half bad. We have jobs, cars, college degrees, 401K's, and a home that we own.

I grew up in the suburbs of DC. Seeing homeless people standing on the corner at a stoplight was a common occurrence. They usually carried a handwritten cardboard sign. You generally didn't give to any, because you couldn't possibly give to all. You left it to the tourists to do it. I can only recall one occasion where a homeless man was anything other than passive. My friend J and I had taken the Metro downtown and were walking near the National Mall. A man in tattered clothing ran up to us and kept shouting, "CAN I AX YOU A QUESTION?" at me.

I finished filling the tank and climbed back into the car. I opened my wallet and decided that I could, after all, spare a five (but at the same time realizing it wouldn't help all that much). I got back out and handed it to the man behind the wheel. The other guy was still making the rounds of all the pumps. "I'm sorry, I don't have much cash on me," I apologized.

His face brightened. "Oh, thank you so much!" he said, taking the money.

I don't know if I did the right thing or not. Maybe my five dollars went into someone's arm. Or maybe they drank my five dollars. Or maybe . . . they were stranded and just needed a part to get home.


aliciajill said…
what a great post. what a great reminder, esp heading into the holidays. thank you.
Sam said…
Yeah, that one's always hard. Living in Manhattan, we're approached a lot by people asking for money. (We live outside of the city now though.) My husband and I generally give. Whether the person's going to use it for booze, dope, or food for their kid, at the end of the day it's not my place to judge. Like you, I feel that if I have a bit to give, I just should. I think you did the right thing. Doesn't matter if he was telling you the truth or not. Whatever it was for, he needed it in that moment.
Lisa said…
Those types of situations are always hard to gage...
Just Lisa said…
Living in Cali, I deal with this all the time. There are so many "career panhandlers" that's it ruins it for the person out there who really needs help.

You did the right thing, no matter what they decided to do with the money.
Jodi said…
That was very kind-hearted of you!
Anonymous said…
I'm very proud of you. I'm also not surprised.

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