When I left my job Thursday night (technically Friday morning), my gas light flickered on. I don’t pass any gas stations on the usual route I take home, so I made a right, hoping it was the correct one since I couldn’t see what I was doing. (I totally should not have been driving without some kind of seeing aid.)
I misgauged my location and while the road I chose led me to the road I wanted, it spilled me out right in front of a section that was blocked off for construction. Unable to make the left, I was forced to turn right, which brought me closer to the seedier parts of town. I’m only on this particular road in the daylight, so I was struggling to see where I was going, and wasn’t even sure if any gas stations were nearby. Through my squinting, I made out the red and yellow blur of a Shell sign, so I pulled in with relief.
Digging through my wallet, I discovered that Henry never returned my credit card (he used it to go grocery shopping, since I always have more money than him because I’m the best) so I had to use the one for our joint account. While I was fumbling to key in the PIN at the pump, an older black man shuffled through the deserted (and very, very dark) lot toward me.
"’Scuse me, miss? I ain’t mean you no harm, but I was wondering….if you could let me pump your gas for you, maybe give me a few dollars in return? I’m homeless, see — just temporarily! I don’t like to be begging so I try to do things to earn the money, see? I haven’t eaten in about two days."
He kept talking, and I was only partially listening because I was too busy scanning his person for the outline of a gun. He had his hands where I could see them, and we locked eyes for a few seconds. Something told me not to be scared.
"I can’t see," I said stupidly, as the credit card terminal on the gas pump was beeping to alert the entire area that I was too retarded to enter my PIN properly.
"You ain’t pushing the button hard enough," the man said, pressing down hard on the "enter" button with the pad of one bony finger, turning his flesh white around the nail. It accepted my PIN this time and he looked at me, waiting for my answer.
I sighed and handed him the nozzle. "I don’t have cash on me," I started, but I felt the tiniest pang of guilt watching him stand there, feeding my car full of fuel, "so let me go inside and find the ATM," I mumbled. I really kind of just wanted to go home. Now I was stuck getting gas for the car and helping a person in need: two of my least favorite things.
The gas station doors were locked because it’s situated so close to the heart of the ghetto. I walked up to the window, where a large and very angry-looking black man was seated behind a sign that instructed: Cash Transactions Only. Below it was a bank teller-type drawer. It reminded me of the time Janna had to make an after-hours bread transaction through the steel drawer of another poorly-located gas station because I was majorly drunk and needed spongey carbs to soak up the stomach acid.
I pressed my face close to the speaker embedded in the bullet-proof window and begged to be allowed inside to use the ATM. The clerk gave me an annoyed glance and then shook his head disinterestedly. "If I buy something, can I have cash back?" I asked, thinking that I could use this as a really legitimate excuse to buy a pack of Camels. Possibly two. I was aware of the slight whine in my voice.
In a perfect world, he’d have jumped up, clapped heartily, and squealed, "Why sure, little white girl in the faux-fur collar! Come right on in! You own the world!" Instead, he didn’t even bother to look at me this time, giving me a second head shake, slow and deliberate.
I sighed haughtily and stomped back to the car.
"I stopped when it got to $10, just like you said, ma’am!" The homeless man was standing with his hands stuffed into his pockets, shoulders hunched against the wind. He looked like he wanted praise.
"Look, I’m sorry but the store is locked for the night so I can’t get any cash." We stood facing each other awkwardly, and I watched as his face fell. I deliberated for a second before sighing and asking, "What’s your name?"
He stood up straight and introduced himself as Mel. He whipped out his thin wallet and flipped it open, exposing his ID to corroborate his story.
"Mel, get in the car. I’ll drive you to Ritter’s, there’s an ATM there." Ritter’s is a diner a few blocks away, in a safer, more populated, area of town. They have good fried green tomatoes. I mean, as good as you’re going to get this far north.
Mel took my hand, asked my name, and thanked me. A brief flash of being filleted with Mel’s blood-crusted switchblade whirred past my eyes, but I shook it off.
I know, REALLY BAD IDEA. What person in their right mind lets a pseudo-homeless man in the hood, late at night, get in their car? Not that I’m in my right mind, but even I should have known better, and I guess I did, but there was something telling me it was okay. A vibe or something, I don’t fucking know. My paranoia works in mysterious circles: It’s broad daylight in a park full of laughing children, shiny balloons and Jesus feeding ducks and I’m cowering behind a bench, anticipating a drive-by. Midnight in the ‘hood with a strange homeless man in my car and I’m fine, thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches with pickles on the side, just fine.
Mel acted as my eyes on the short trip down to Ritters. "Oh Miss Erin, watch that car parked on the side of the road," he’d warn. "No, it’s this next block up here, Miss Erin," he’d correct. Mel was probably more intimidated of me and my (lack of) eye sight than I was of having a strange man in my passenger seat. Interspersed between Mel’s driving instructions, I learned that he has a bullet lodged in his head and one in his back, and that he lost his mother and two sisters a year ago. He has three kids: the oldest is twenty-three and the youngest is seven.
Inside Ritter’s, I used Henry’s credit card once again to withdraw money. I stood there at the front of the restaurant, holding the bill in my hand, contemplating asking the cashier to break it into smaller bills for me. "No, it’s Easter," I said to myself. I took the money outside and stuffed it in Mel’s hand.
"Oh Miss Erin," he whispered and shook his head. He started to say it was too much but I pushed his hand back into his side.
"It’s OK. You need to eat. It’s only money." I was shocking myself. I started to wonder where this uncharacteristic charity act was coming from.
We stood around under the front light of Ritter’s for a few more minutes, talking about our kids and life and suddenly I wasn’t in such of a big hurry to get home.
Because I knew I’d have a lot of ‘splaining to do.
Mel asked me to keep him in mind if I needed yard work done or my basement cleaned (I later announced excitedly to Janna that I was going to buy him) and then he let me take his picture in the dim light. After I allowed to give me a bear hug, I continued on my way home.
It was a drive full of nervousness and trepidation.
All the lights were on when I got home and Henry was dressed for work (he usually leaves a little after I get home, around 1AM or so). I always come straight home from work, so I’m sure he thought I was sucking dudes off in an alleyway.
It probably didn’t help that I was vomiting nervous giggles all up in his grill as soon as I walked through the door.
"What did you do?" he asked, the underneath of his eyes creased with concern.
I rummaged through my purse, keeping my face hidden behind a wall of hair. "Henry, don’t be mad," I urged through taut laughter. "I’m just going to write you out a check—-"
"WHAT DID YOU DO?" he asked again, sounding quite alarmed.
I couldn’t stop laughing. I tried to stall as long as I could, but he eventually made me cry uncle, just with his eyes alone.
So I told him the story. He sighed a lot throughout my tale. Sometimes he closed his eyes to keep the fear from showing. Occasionally he shook his head in horror. "And so what it all means is, I’m a good samaritan," I finished.
"No, you’re a fucking idiot. Why would you let some homeless guy in the car? AT NIGHT? AND IN THAT AREA?" He grabbed the check off me and shoved it in his pocket.
"So…you’re not mad that I gave him money?" I asked slowly, confused yet relieved.
"No. Just don’t let strangers get in the car. You know better."
Do I? It was a real good father-daughter talk. If only we had been sitting atop a Laura Ashley comforter and I was hugging a teddy bear, it could have been a great public service announcement.
"But you have to admit I was doing really good. I haven’t done something this stupid in a very long time," I said.
He was still mumbling about me being an idiot as he walked out the door for work. It could have been worse. I mean, I could have brought Mel home with me.
[Ed.Note: I know I’m a stupid asshole and highly reckless. You don’t need to tell me. I will try not to do it again.]