Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"The Kindness of Strangers"

Let's bring out our Tennessee Williams and re-visit The Glass Menagerie.  In this play, we meet Williams' pitiful single mom, Amanda Wingfield.  She's the lady whose telephone company husband "fell in love with long distance," leaving her with the rent, the bills, and two young adult children.  In a world without entitlements, Amanda says she has always depended on "the kindness of strangers" to get by.   I haven't seen a production of the play lately, but I wonder how contemporary audiences would react to such a dependency?  I suspect half the audience would have a thought bubble above their heads reading WTF?  The other half would mutter, "Yeah, right."

OK, I am a bit cynical.  I live in a world where I absolutely would not leave the house with the thought of depending upon the kindness of strangers.  I can depend on myself, my friends and family, and a well-charged cell phone.  In emergencies, there is always 911.  But the kindness of strangers?  Please.

That's the attitude that made my most recent non-adventure all the more astonishing.

I was headed south on Highway 231 after work one Saturday morning with the thought that I would run a quick errand, get some gas, and go home for an undemanding afternoon.  I was driving a car that had primarily been my son's.  In my own defense, I should say that I was not aware of how long I could delay the fuel stop once the "Low Fuel" warning appeared.  Still, I was only slightly surprised when the car coughed a bit and slowed down in spite of my insistent foot on the accelerator.

I was in a fortunate location for unfortunate circumstances.  A  quick right turn off the highway found me on Green St., coasting downhill into downtown Wetumpka.  I was hoping that, miraculously, a brand-new filling station would have sprung up between the ancient buildings, and I could be on my way with a minimum of trouble. 

Sadly, the only thing I found at the bottom of Green St. was a STOP sign.  Who knew that cars with no fuel lost power-assist steering and brakes?  I learned that, because I couldn't use my momentum to cruise through the intersection.  There was a car coming.

I was able to stop for a second or two, roll across the intersection, and come to a stop barely off the road in the parking area of--what is this?--a repair service?  A garage?  A garage SALE?  I spied a couple of antique gas pumps and a sign advising me of the price of kerosene.  I put the car in PARK, turned off the key, and ventured out.

I crossed the concrete tarmac and was met by four adolescent cats.  Two meowed a greeting, and two thought I was a monster, so they scurried under a shed.  Then I saw a human--a very senior human, who approached me slowly with a questioning expression.

I sheepishly pointed to my car, which was decidedly off the road, but barely into the parking area.  I indicated the gas pumps and explained my poor job of parking.  I hadn't been able to roll quite far enough to stop beside the pump.  I was intentionally ignoring the saw horses and other debris in the space a car would occupy.

The gentleman shook his head.  "We don't have any gas, ma'am."  He didn't elaborate or explain why there were gas pumps.  He didn't say anything else.  A little rat terrier/chihuahua-looking critter put her front paws against my knee and looked sympathetically up at me.  I absent-mindedly scratched behind her ears, and she ambled away.  A long-haired tortoise-shell cat stood up in the rusted lawn chair where she'd been napping, circled a time or two, and went back to sleep.  The teenagers stuck their heads out from under the shed and went back in.  I lamely apologized to the man for parking in such an obvious non-parking area in front of his business.  I walked back to my car and got in.

My next challenge would be to get Mr. Powers to answer the landline at our house.  The odds of this happening were not good.  If he were outside, he would never hear the telephone ringing at all.  If he chanced to be inside, he would pretend to never hear the telephone ringing at all.  Who answers a landline?  I thought I would give it a try.

I took my cell phone out of my purse.  I stared at it.  Can cell phones run out of gas, too?  No, Stupid, but they do go dead, especially if you have been playing Scrabble on them for the last two days!  I shook my unresponsive phone as if it were a bottle of orange juice.  There was no blink or beep of response.  For a moment I thought I saw a glimmer of hope, because my son had left behind the car-charger for his old phone.  Would it fit my phone?  It would not.  I wondered later on if an empty gas tank also disables the power point in a car.  I had one option remaining.  I would have to find the fellow whose job it must have been to oversee the dog and the cats.  I would have to ask him if he at least had a phone.

I got out of the car again and went to find my new acquaintance.  He was already walking toward me.

"Ma'am?  I've called a fellow, and he's gone with a gas can to buy you $2 worth of gas.  It'll take him a little while to go get the gas, but he'll be here in just a minute."

Speechless is not the word.  I believe I remembered my manners and thanked the man.  I think I reached down to pet the solid white kitty which had stolen out from under the shed again.  I know for sure I got back in my car to wait for the Fellow with the Gas Can.  I watched as cars, trucks and vans passed me by.

Along came an electric-blue Ford Taurus.  A younger person than me would have admired the set of rims on the Taurus.  Being from Slapout, I just wondered why the car sat up so high.  Did the driver plan to take that thing stump-jumping?  I've seen 4x4's that weren't that tall.

The Taurus pulled into the business that by now I had concluded used to be a service station.  A tall middle-aged man unfolded himself from the driver's seat.  (Maybe he, too, was driving a car used mostly by his kid?)  He opened the trunk, and sure enough, he removed a red gas can.  I believe I sighed relief and grinned at the same time.

The man spoke briefly to the Senior Citizen-Keeper of Dogs & Cats and Summoner of Help.  Then he approached my car with a friendly expression and a chuckle as I described my apparent predicament and apologized for my irresponsibility.

"It happens," said he, and we chatted about the ridiculous price of gas as he poured $2 worth into my tank.  "You want me to crank it for you?" he asked.  "Sometimes they won't start right up."

My Chevy started right up.  I asked him how much I owed.  He told me to go see Mr. H.  So my Senior Savior had a name.  He was Mr. H!  But Mr. H said, "Just pay him," and indicated my Junior Savior.  "He helps me out with the wrecker sometimes."

I was at a wrecker service!  Taking another look around, I noticed all kinds of things that would suggest a towing service, not the least of which was an aging tow truck.  Why had I never noticed this place before?  A gold and white cat sprang artfully onto a gas pump, which contained no gas to be pumped. 

I gave my new-found friend a $5 bill and thanked him for his trouble.  He, of course, said, "No problem," and went on his way.  I never got the name of this unusually tall African American neighbor who likes to wear a Vietnam-era camo hat.  He might be driving around in that electric-blue Taurus. 

Mr. H smiled and said, "Come back to see us when you can stay longer.  Come on, Eula Mae."

The dog's name was Eula Mae!

I do intend to go back.  I will have dog and cat food with me.

I will keep a good eye on that gas gauge from now on.  I am pretty independent, and when my cell phone is fully charged, I'll go just about anywhere.  After all, I can depend on my family and my friends--and the kindness of strangers.