Nothing, not even the dreaded commute was going to keep me from getting to my class on time. If I say I’m going to be somewhere, I’m going to be there. It’s not so much the distance (100 miles) I detest, as the hours of dead time creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But, in a blink of mindful awareness I remind myself that the satisfaction I derive from teaching makes the journey well worth the effort.
My routine was to make sure I left early enough, before 3pm, to get there by 6pm. It usually takes about three hours to get from San Francisco to Sacramento and that should allow me ample time to get there, as long as my car is sound mechanically, which was why I got a Honda, and made sure my gas tank is full.
When it’s a beautiful day and I’m passing the time, listening to music, the drive is downright pleasant. It was one of those perfect sunny days when you could see forever.
Something lying on the road in the distance caught my attention. It wasn’t a rock. It looked like an odd shaped piece of scrap metal or something, and was getting bigger as I was speeding towards it with no way of getting around it.
I had to think fast. What is that? Shit! I’m going to have to ride over it. looked like some kind of machine part or something. What if I run over it? If it was soft enough, my car would just crush it. If it was small enough, I’d miss hitting it altogether. But it wasn’t. Oh shit! I heard a seemingly innocuous pop as I rode over it and was relieved to have avoided what could have been a bigger problem.
After a few miles and several minutes later, I saw the driver in a car that was passing me trying to get my attention. I thought he was pointing to my car. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. I didn’t know there was anything wrong. Everything seemed fine so I just kept going.
Then, a minute or two after that, I saw a huge truck in my rear-view mirror and the driver was motioning to me to pull over, waving me off the road. I didn’t know what to do. Usually, drivers look out for each other, so I thought it best to heed his call to pull off the road and find out what the heck was going on. He followed behind me and pulled up next to me. I rolled my window down, stuck my head out.
“Something is leaking from your car,” he yelled out.
“Leaking?” I repeated, unsure whether I had heard him correctly. He nodded. I gestured a thanks to him as he drove off.
“Jeez, what could be leaking?” I bent over to look underneath my car and saw a clear liquid, not water, running out like a faucet. I couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Shit. It had to be my gas tank. That thing, whatever it was, must have punctured my gas tank.
I then checked my gas gauge to see how full it was. It was already below the halfway mark, which surprised me given I had filled the tank that morning. As I was sitting there staring at the gas gauge, I was shocked to see it moving gradually and steadily toward empty.
Cars were whizzing by. I didn’t have a phone. There weren’t cell phones at the time. “Was I going to have to sit there until my car ran completely out of gas?” I glanced into my side-view mirror, hoping to see a police car, and looked at the freeway in both directions, but no such luck.
The only thing I saw was this old flat-bed truck that was parked thirty or so feet behind me. I was wondering how long that care was there and why it was there. I couldn’t tell whether there was anyone in it.
Then I saw the car door open, and a guy came out and started walking towards me. “Uh oh. What could he possibly be wanting from me?” I was feeling kind of vulnerable, stuck on the side of the road in a car and wasn’t even sure where I was.
He was a dark-skinned, medium-built, Hispanic-looking guy looking serious and intent as he approached. What could he possibly want from me?” I was checking to see if he had a gun or some other weapon he could use to threaten, rob or terrorize me.
He asked me in Spanish, “Problema?” I wasn’t about to explain to him what happened when it was apparent, he barely spoke English. With a hapless snivel and shake of my head, I indicated I did indeed have a problem, and no idea what to do, or how he could possibly help me. Then it occurred to me to give him the benefit of the doubt by showing him the problem, by bending down and pointing to the gas that was still streaming out from the tank. He got down to look under the car and saw what I was talking about.
He looked perplexed and asked, “What to do?” I hadn’t a clue either. I was just plain flabbergasted, threw up my hands as I had no idea what to do. I became aware that some of my disgust and aggravation was coming out at him for asking me such a dumb question, which I didn’t want to happen. I thought better to check myself, after all he wasn’t the problem, he was the only one there to help me.
Fortunately, he wasn’t fazed by my short-temperedness. He said something he seemed to keep repeating, “tanque de gas,” as if he just put one plus one together and realized what the problem was. It looked like he was in deep thought about what to do about it, like maybe he knew where I could get a new gas tank.
The whole situation felt surreal to me. There I was in the middle of nowhere with my gas tank about to empty, with a complete stranger who didn’t speak English, trying to figure out what to do. I couldn’t imagine why he was there, what his motives were or what he could possibly do to help me. It wasn’t his problem to solve. It was my problem and was up to me and me alone, to solve.
I started talking to him. “Okay. We know what the problem is. But how am I going to get a gas tank?” Looked at my watch and grimaced when I saw that it was already 3:30. I was trying to remember the short list of Spanish words I knew. “Donde? donde? am I going to find a gas tank?”
He seemed to be deep in thought, then put up his finger as if he had an idea, and was nodding affirmatively. Then he pointed in the direction to go and indicated that I was to follow him.
When I looked to see where he was talking about, my first reaction was to put a kabash on the whole idea. “Oh shit!, I said to myself. I shouldn’t have asked.” It was the other side of town, where only desperate and dangerous people roam the streets, a place to be avoided at all costs, not a place for a little White Boy like myself to be. But there were no other options than to follow his lead.
I wasn’t sure how much gas was left in my car, how far we can get and didn’t want to get stuck somewhere worse than a shoulder off the freeway. And I was still thinking about how I was going to get to my class on time, hoping for a miracle. “Okaaaay… “How far are we talking about here?” Fortunately, he knew more English than I did Spanish.
“Dias minutas.” “How long?” “Dias, vente. No mucho.” I wasn’t clear how long that was, but it didn’t matter anyway as I wasn’t going anywhere.
My fears and doubts were melted by his warm brown eyes. Somehow, I surmised that even though I didn’t know this guy from Adam, or where we were going or how long it was going to take, I got myself ready for an adventure with him.
Then I realized that I don’t even know his name, so I stopped to ask, “What’s your name?” “Carlos.”
I was also wondering about his time. “Trabajo?” (one of the other Spanish words I knew) and added, “What about you? Don’t you have to work?”
“Is Okay. Not to worry.” I understood him trying to tell me that he was a courier and that although he did have a package to deliver, he could just as well do it later.
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s go!”
The needle was nearing empty and I was running out of time. I hope he knows where he’s going, and we get there soon.
Just in the nick of time, I saw Carlos finally pulling over and I parked right behind him. At this point, my car was completely out of gas. As I was looking around trying to figure out where we were, an industrial area with wrecking yards all around me. And we were parked right in front of one of them.
I was so happy and relieved, I slapped him five. “Yes! You knew where you were going.” He and I walked into the shop together, like we were buddies, and I was to be his interpreter, to explain to the wrecking yard guy what we were looking for. It turned out they had the gas tank for my car, thank god!
It then occurred to me that I was going to have to bag the class and better call them to let them know I wasn’t going to make it, but they didn’t have a phone I could use. I thought I’d be able to make the call later when I got access to a phone.
When we got out of that shop, there was a policeman standing by my car. When I asked him whether there was a problem, he said, “Yes there’s a problem. The car is leaking gas and that’s a fire hazard and it can’t be sitting there.” When I told him of my predicament, he said that he'd give me a few minutes to get the car towed somewhere or else he’d have to give me a ticket and he’ll have the car towed.
“Not to worry. Not to worry.”
Ok, we got the gas tank in the back of his truck, but still had to get my car towed somewhere, but where? I was looking at Carlos with all these unanswered questions.
“Not to worry.”
“What do you mean, “not to worry?”
“Mi casa. Mi casa. Es okay!”
“What am I going to do with the car?”
“Mi casa. Mi casa. Not to worry.”
I understood him trying to tell me to leave the gas tank in his truck and have the car towed to his house and for me to meet him there when he gets there.
“Okay, so you’re going to meet me at your house?”
He nodded affirmatively. “Not to worry,” pointing to the package in his truck that he had to deliver. “I come back. Vente minutes.”
“Okaaaay. Where do you live?”
“Daly City.” “Ok. At least I knew where that was.” Things were beginning to make sense, if only I could believe it was all going to work out somehow.
When I called the AAA guy for the tow, he asked me the address where the car was to be towed to. I forgot to get his address. “Hold on!” I ran out of the shop, hoping that Carlos hadn’t left yet, “Carlos! Carlos!”
He must have seen me in his rear-view mirror for he turned around and drove back. “Address. Address. Where do you live?” “No problema.” He took a piece of paper, dug around for a pen and wrote it down, barely legible enough for me to read it.
Fortunately, the tow guy knew where to go. It seemed pretty far away, and it was getting late, already 5pm. I was hoping that Carlos had a phone at his house I’d be able to use to cancel the class.
Within a couple of minutes, Carlos had driven up. I was getting ancie to make the call. “Telephonez? Telephonez? “I need to use your “telephone, now, hoping he’d understand with my thumb to my ear and my pinky to my mouth. He assured me, “Not to worry. Not to worry.” “No problema.”
Carlos directed me to go beyond his gated stairway, up the flight of stairs, and go inside. I guess he had already informed his family of my arrival because they were all sitting down in their living room, waiting for me and immediately invited me to join them for dinner.
“Mucho gratious. Telephonez solo. Gratsy. Gratsy.” His wife introduced herself, as well as his two beautiful teenage daughters and younger son, all of whom appeared busy with their schoolwork. Their hospitality was telling me to feel right at home. As hungry as I was, I was in too much of a hurry and just shrugged their offer off.
When I finally found my way to the phone, Carlos was trying to tell me something. “Donde (where) class?” Wondering why he was asking me that, I answered anyway. “Sacramento.” And gave him a bit of his own medicine, I said, “Not to worry” as it was a foregone conclusion, I had to cancel the class. “It’s ok,” I muttered to myself, “I’ll just reschedule it. “Not to worry. No problema.” I also thanked him for all he had done up to that point. “I could get a taxi and come back for my car when it got fixed.” I still had to find a place to repair it.
“Sacramento?” His eyes were flitting around as he was trying to calculate the time and distance. I shortcut his thinking. “Two hours. At least two hours.” I told him again, “Not to worry. No big deal. I’ll make it up.” I knew he didn’t get what I meant, but it hardly mattered. “One phone call.” I started dialing his phone.
He was looking like he had an idea he wanted me to consider, motioning to put the phone down to hear him out. What could he possibly be thinking? Pointing to his clock and asked again, “Que tiempo la classe? I translated his asking for the time I had to get there.
I thought that maybe he wasn’t understanding me and I was needing to sound more emphatic. “It’s too late! I’d have to rent a car and wouldn’t make it back home until after midnight. “It’s too late. “it’s not worth the trouble or the money.”
“What time back?” he asked again. “In the morning?” To pacify him, I said, “Probably like around 7am.”
He said something barely audible.
“My car. Es okay.” He had to be kidding. “No way. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s not an option.” He had already gone far beyond the call of duty and could do no more.
“Really. Es okay. Not to worry. Not to worry. I fix your car.”
Another surreal moment. “Okay, let me get this straight. I take your car tonight. Drive to my class and come back in the morning and you’re going to fix my car by the time I get back?” My face was scrunching in disbelief.
“Not to worry. Not to worry.” I started wondering, what is motivating this guy? Why is he doing this? What’s in it for him? How is this possible? He’s going to lend me his car for the night and somehow get my car fixed when he must work the next day?! This is not right. It’s too much. I’d be taking advantage. This is like winning the lottery. I’d be the biggest fool to not take the money. But how could I going along with something I would never do, but something that was natural for Carlos to do.
Like I said at the beginning, if I say I’m going to be somewhere, I’m going to be there. But not without Carlos showing up like my guardian angel. I couldn’t reconcile my conflict, but decided to go for it, and not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I called the school to let them know that I’m running late but I’m going to be there, albeit an hour late.
When I finally got to the class, I was flying in disbelief. I had to tell them the amazing story of what it took for me to get there. We all participated in the spontaneous round of applause for what sounded like a miracle of sorts. I was in an altered state, everything felt surreal, and I don’t think I had yet fully grasped the enormity of what happened.
When I returned to Carlos’s house to pick up my car the next morning, he greeted me with a proud beaming smile that told me it was ready and working. He went as far as to show me the punctured tank that had to be gotten rid of, like it was business as usual. As I was standing there looking at him ready to say good-bye, get in my car and go drive home, it hit me. I was frozen. I didn’t know what to say or do. Just thanking him again, saying goodbye and probably never seeing him again, wasn’t going to cut it.
I felt a deep sense of gratitude I couldn’t put into words. I was trying to rationalize that it wasn’t like I didn’t do anything, after all, I did make sure to fill his gas tank, that was the least I could do. But it wasn’t enough. Then I thought to give him some money as a tip or reward. How much money should I give him? No matter how much I came up with, it wasn’t going to be enough. So, I just went into my pocket and took out the whole wad of cash I had, maybe a hundred dollars.
But Carlos wouldn’t have it. “No. No. No. Es okay. Not to worry.”
“No, No.” I tried to override him, “I insist.” And he kept nodding, “Not to worry. Not to worry.”
“Carlos, you have to, I need you to take this.” I pushed the money it into his hand, to which he finally acquiesced to. All I kept saying was “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I felt so inept, my words so inadequate.
Carlos tested my sensibilities. He went far beyond the unexpected; a random act of kindness that wasn’t random for Carlos. He wanted nothing in return. It seemed so natural for him, like he was from out of this world. Maybe he was. He told me he was from Nicaragua. Maybe that’s how people treat each other in Nicaragua.
The odds were a million to one that I would have ever stopped on the side of the road for a stranger and go so far out of my way. If the situation was reversed, he’d be the one up the creek without a paddle, or someone else would have stopped to help. Jeez, I don’t know that I’d do anything like that even now.
As I thought about Carlos on my way back home, I was sinking into despair, a gnawing disappointment with myself, questioning who I am. I talk about connection and intimacy all the time but would never act so kindly spontaneously like he did to a stranger. It would never occur to me. Here I am, a teacher who waxes on and on about it being okay to need help, accept help and what a relief it is to get it, yet never about offering help as a random act of kindness. I felt guilty and ashamed for the kindness Carlos bestowed upon me.
There were all these mixed feelings I couldn’t sort out. I was elated by the feat of having gotten to my classes against all odds. I felt eternally grateful for the miracle of what happened. I was humbled as well, and ready to embrace the belief that helping and being kinder to each other, everyone else all the time, is natural. But I was also left sunken and wondering why I can’t live up to my own expectations.