The gas light had been on for awhile before I turned into the weird little stop-n-shop off of Burlington Street. I go there often because it’s on my route, but I’ve hardly ever been in the store — just enough to know it’s pretty bare bones, with an emphasis on beer and cigarettes. When I had kidney stones a few years ago and had to go to the ER for the pain, Chris and I stopped in this lot on the way home so I could crawl out and puke near the cement retaining wall. “I puked there a long time ago,” he laughed as I got back in the car, “but for very different reasons.”
This is pretty much the sum total of my history with this corner gas station.
I was wearing an old stained winter coat that I wear when I’m going to the gym in case it gets stolen. I was trying to figure out how to press the lesser priced gas in order to fill my car, a red Toyota RAV. It’s a nice car — the nicest I’ve owned. I lease it because I was so exasperated by the unknown costs that accompanied an older car, but I’m still kind of embarrassed to have this shiny, new vehicle. It feels irresponsible in some part of my brain — a part that believes the narrative that you buy a car and pay it off and that’s how a “good person” does things.
I was struggling with the pump — I struggle with gas pumps frequently; they’re just not my thing — when two people came out of the store carrying a plastic bag and laughing loudly. I turned and smiled at them. “Merry Christmas!” the woman, who was African American and roughly in her 40s, shouted to me. I yelled the same back and gave a bigger smile.
“Nice truck!” the man, also African American and around the same age, said. “Can I take it for a spin?” We all laughed, though inside my car shame was kicking myself for ever trading in my dad’s old Volvo wagon. I was also trying to gage if they were a couple, something I do when I encounter a pair of people. I like to read body language and find clues that provides a backstory about them. I was deciding they weren’t, just as he cut off from her and started walking toward me: “Can I ask you something?”
Please don’t ask me for money. Please don’t ask for money. It wasn’t even so much that I cared if he asked, it was that it felt so predictable. The racial difference, the apparent socio-economic differences. For a moment, I wanted to be three random human beings who were in the same place and had shared a smile and a well wishing.
As the woman took off across the street without a word, I got a sense that she had a similar thought.
I wanted him to ask me about the fate of NASA. I wanted him to ask me for my grandmother’s cranberry fluff recipe. I wanted him to ask me if I’d been a Bulls fan n the day. I wanted him to ask me white or wheat. I wanted him to ask me if I remembered learning how to tie my shoes. I wanted him to ask me if I slept on my side or on my stomach or on my back.
“Sure,” I said, “ask away!” I kept smiling as I was also topping off the tank.
“You got any money?” Before I could reply, he started into a story about how they were visiting his sister and she didn’t want them to stay with her, so they were sleeping under the bridge instead. He gestured to the south and I couldn’t picture a bridge.
“Why doesn’t she want you stay with her?” I kept my upbeat voice, but something in me wanted to to know more. Something in me actually wanted to talk. “Her son is bipolar; it makes him uncomfortable.”
I took in his white coat, which was clean and didn’t really look like it had been hanging out under a bridge. When he smiled, I saw a front tooth that was brown all the way down to the root; it made me wince at the pain I imagined it caused. At a glance of his pants, I noticed a big stain — dirt? blood? ketchup?
“Of course,” I said, as I returned the nozzle to its original place. “Just a sec.”
In my wallet was a five and a one. Without hesitation, I pulled out the five.
There were many previous versions of me that would not have given this man this money — out of fear or disgust, out of cowardice or doubt about whether this was the “right thing.” And afterward I would feel shame with myself for hesitating and anger with him for what I would have deduced was a totally made-up story.
But today I thought: there could be a sister. There might be a bipolar son. A night or two under the bridge doesn’t seem out of the question. There might be beer in the white plastic bag. But the one thing in front me that I knew for sure was that rotten tooth. There was no making that up. For that tooth alone — for all of my insured dentist visits and my son’s current orthodontia and for every tube of toothpaste I’ve ever bought, there was a desire to give him the money without any attachment of where it was going. Instead, it was a small acknowledgement of “hey, you looked me in the eye and asked me for something. I heard you – and here it is.”
A year ago, I’m not sure what I would have done. I went through a phase of carrying around bags of clean socks and granola bars in my car to hand to people on street corners who were holding cardboard signs asking for help. Once they were all gone, I didn’t replace them because often when I handed them to people and watched as they looked inside, I noted a combination of disappointment and disdain.
I know that I certainly wouldn’t have written this post. But this year has split open race for me and made it immediate and vital to understanding this time and place in which we live. Not that I have gained clarity about race; much more importantly, I have gained clarity about my unclarity. I don’t know shit. But I know that I want to talk about it – to listen about it – to watch it on screen and read it in books. I want to share space with people who look different than me and who’ve had radically different experiences of America; to hear stories from them and struggle together with the current mess that is our country. I want to be able to walk up to someone who looks different than me, and if I feel in need, to be able to ask for something and know that I will be seen and heard and, if possible, my need will be met.
Mostly, I know that hiding behind shame doesn’t do anyone any good. So five bucks was nothing. It was a piece of paper. And a chance for our hands to meet and for two people to be in the same place and share a smile and a well wishing. Merry Christmas.