Memory Of A Kindness

[cc photo courtesy of David Baron]

There I was, on the side of I-83 between Pennsylvania and Baltimore. I can see myself standing there on that bright spring morning years ago as if I were looking at someone else’s life: a young woman in a floral dress is standing next to a car with a flat tire, her shoulders slumped. She is desperately clutching a tire-iron in her grimy, bleeding hands as she scans the passing traffic.

What’s the most powerful way to spread a message? Stories.

My life did not start from a place of advantage, as you may already know, but on this day in particular it was as if I were perched precariously at the intersection of two parallel universes. In one universe, I got to start the job that would launch a successful career in IT communications. Were a mere puff of wind to tip me into the other, all of my work up to this point would be in vain. That’s the life of the working poor: any given moment could mean the difference between a single step forward and falling all the way through to the bottom. There is no margin for error, and the safety net is damn flimsy.

After fleeing my abusive situation in Kansas, I had found myself looking to the “big city”, as I naively imagined it, as a way to find a job that could provide some kind of future for my three small children. I’m skipping a few chapters to say that I ended up in York, Pennsylvania, in a $300-a-month apartment on South Queen Street, thinking this would be the most affordable access to Baltimore. The meth lab upstairs, the prostitute out back, and the drug-gang shootouts in front of the building are stories for another day. Suffice it to say that having come straight out of a sheltered fundamentalist upbringing, I little understood the harshness of the real world.

As educated in arts and languages as I considered myself to be, I suspected I’d need some real-world credentials if I was going to be paid to do anything. I had thrown myself thousands of dollars into debt for a few months of technical schooling, and saved a precious hundred dollars to have a resume done. I studied hard, and I searched hard for a job that would give me just a foot–or even a toe–in the door.

I found one. They called me. I interviewed, and I got it. Me. Rose from that fundy place in Kansas.

And there I was, the morning of the first day of the rest of my life, knuckles dirty and bleeding, unable to budge even one of the lugs to loosen the flat tire. No cell phone. No AAA. Perhaps someone just one rung above me on the ladder would have had these things, but I didn’t.

I stood in a limbo between two cities, on a precipice between two possible worlds. What must be the joyful abandon of these people’s lives, I thought, that they can continue to speed by me in reliable vehicles I could only dream of ever owning? The fabric of my floral dress fluttered with each passing car, and I was utterly alone.

Suddenly, they were there: an older couple in an older station wagon, telling me to get in.

English wasn’t their first language, and I think they may have been from the Middle East. I remember some conversation during the drive. They may have told me they were on their way to a business they owned and that my new job was just on their way, so it was really no problem at all. The memory is blurry now. They brought me right to the front door of my new office, and I walked in just in time, as if nothing had happened. I pretended I looked great, that I hadn’t left my car somewhere out on the highway, and that my hands weren’t bleeding. I don’t know that anyone was the wiser.

I let the couple in the station wagon slip away, out into the world, wondering how you can ever thank anyone enough for something that may literally have changed the course of your life.