Mar 252008

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.]

  21 Responses to “A Thin Line Between Charity & Stupidity”

  1. I did something eerily similar not too long ago. Caved into a seedy guy’s plea for a ride somewhere in the middle of the night. He also called me “Miss Elaine” and also shared his life story (which included a lot more jailtime than yours). I also felt incredibly stupid but charitable. I also vowed never to do it again.

  2. Oh Erin, I’m so proud of you. I think it’s lovely what you did. Of course you should always trust that feeling or “vibe”. If it can tell you when to NOT trust someone, it must work the other way too. I bet he’ll remember you forever. :D

    • Thank you for not calling me an idiot like everyone else has been!

    • Yes, this. If you’d felt danger from him and did it anyway, it would’ve been stupid. If you’d not felt danger and turned him away with a shrug and a story, it would’ve been selfish.

      You did just right.

    • Thank you, Dreama! I was thinking the other day about the whole thing and I didn’t feel scared. I admit that I’ve picked up my fair share of hitchhikers (and Mel wasn’t even asking for a ride) and honest to god the only time I was scared was when I picked up this white middle-aged woman. And I even had a friend with me in the car. But there was something about her presence that made me so nervous. Luckily, I didn’t drive her far.

  3. I think that was really nice too. Not that I’d ever do something like that. =P My mom and my brother spend a lot of time downtown and they’re not as nervous around homeless people as I am. Although I had a conversation with this homeless (and drunk) guy about school while I was studying the other day. Normally I’d just try not to make eye contact and back away.

    I honestly don’t think most homeless people are ‘dangerous.’ It’s the same stereotype that mentally ill people are violent and unpredictable… and lots of homeless are mentally ill as well. Anyhow I’m glad it worked out okay and he wasn’t waiting to shiv you once he got in your car or anything. I agree with Ranchy up there, you can usually tell who’s dangerous and who’s not if you’re aware of body language and demeanor.

    Tim calls me “Miss Jenny” all the time. I love it lol.

    • We’re so trained to assume that all people asking for money don’t really need it, or are going to use it to buy drugs. It’s hard to know when the person has a legitimate cause! I dunno, I’d do it again, probably!

      That’s so cute that Tim calls you that!

  4. I love everything about this post. I especially love that it didn’t end horribly :-) but really what a fantastic connection you had with him even just for a few minutes. Mel will never forget you, nor you, him, I imagine. I hope he lands on his feet and meets more Miss Erins in his time of need.

    There’s something profound flying around in my head but I’m so full of gorgeous hummus and Blue Sage salad that I can’t think straight. Something along the lines of, if we could all trust each other, there’d be no need to be afraid of showing kindness to strangers in need. Know’m sayin’?

    • I had so much I wanted to say back to you but now I can’t stop thinking about GORGEOUS HUMMUS and BLUE SAGE SALAD, you jerk!

      Hummus is about the safest thing for me to eat too, because I just got a stupid temporary crown on today:(

    • Heh… sorry! I wish I could fax some to you. Or email it!

  5. I am a big fan of listening to that inner voice, so I saw no flaw in what you did. I did something similar when I visited Merry in Atlanta, so I guess I’m biased.

    I believe actions like these eventually come back to you. So someone will do something nice for you one day, too.

    • This is true! The next day was a really good day and I attribute it to Mel. I’m going to try and write about it later.

      Thank you for understanding! It was getting to the point where I was afraid to even talk about it because I was getting chastised so much.

  6. Dearest Erin K., Friend of the Homeless,

    Last night, my therapist was telling me all about karma (I had to promise not to tell my psychiatrist – she doesn’t want him to think she’s some kind of hippy) and I think what you did is totally awesome and positive and will make some sort of difference for you and for Mel down the line. I am proud of you for trusting your instincts and being so kind and generous. Well done, babe.

    xoxo, Amelia A., Theoretical Friend of the Homeless*

    *everyone in this town has a home, wtf

  7. ok- i <3 this story.
    and- i <3 you.

    the craziness and sweetness of this tale work so well to capture who you are as a person on such a deep level.

    i don’t like when you do dangerous things like this necessarily… but how can you not like the person who does?

  8. People are people so why should it be
    You and I should get along so awfully

    I love it. Sometimes I get past my grumpiness and do something for a homeless person, but I don’t know if I would have had the cojones to let a stranger into my car. Still, good on ya. Glad you made it through OK.

    And yeah, truly, people are people.

Say it don't spray it.

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