I started to pull over as soon as I saw her raise her hand and gesture at my car. A thirty-something woman in a long dress standing all alone on the side of Liberty Road five miles from Salem. I had to stop.
My first thought was that she had car trouble and needed help. But there wasn’t any car in sight. I rolled down the passenger side window.
“Oh, thank you for stopping,” she said. “I’ve been here for 45 minutes. I need a ride into town so I can catch a bus to go for a job interview.” “Hop in,” I told her. “No problem.”
As she settled into our Prius I realized that this was the first time I’d picked up a hitchhiker since the ‘60s when I drove a VW bug and was a lot wilder and crazier. Still, I couldn’t believe that no one else had stopped for this gentle-appearing soul.
“Even some of my neighbors passed me by,” she told me. “It must have been because you’re so scary looking,” I said with a smile. She was nicely dressed and clutching a purse. Not exactly the sort of woman that you should be afraid of stopping for on a rural road, especially on a sunny afternoon.
Her car was beyond repair. She and her boyfriend had tried to keep it going but now it had a major axle problem. They’d had to call a tow truck driver several times. She said that the driver finally said, “I’m tired of coming all the way out here. I’ll try to find you a cheap car from our repo lot.”
She was looking forward to picking up a $200 Ford Fiesta. She had put $100 down and needed to work for a week before she could pay the other $100. “They told me that it runs fine. It has a broken window, and you have to start it with a screwdriver, but I can live with that.”
She had left home three hours early to be sure she got to the job interview on time. It would have taken her twenty minutes to drive there. “It’s really more of a job orientation at T-Mobile. This is my third interview with them. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the job. It pays $10.20. That’s so much better than minimum wage. I’ll be so happy if I get the job.”
I could easily understand her words, but her voice had the intonation of a deaf person. Indeed, she told me that her new hearing aids were much better than her old ones. At a previous call center job she kept having to raise her hand for a supervisor because she couldn’t make out what a customer was saying. She had been born nearly deaf.
“Voc Rehab has been so helpful to me,” she said. “They gave me $100 to buy some new clothes. And I have a bus pass. They’ve been great.”
I asked her where she wanted to be dropped off. “There’s a bus stop by the Liberty Inn. I can get a bus to downtown from there, then get a transfer to where T-Mobile is. I have the address.”
It turned out that we had a mutual friend, Ted, who used to live in our Spring Lake Estates development. Ted is in assisted living now. She washes Ted’s clothes every Thursday evening for him. I gave her my name. She said she’d say hello to Ted for me. I left her at the bus stop.
I felt shitty. Horribly guilty. I needed to mail some stuff, then I was going to go to Best Buy to buy a router for the broadband satellite Internet connection that is going to be installed Wednesday. It’ll cost us $69 a month. That was close to what she had left to pay on her $200 car that she needed to get to her $10 an hour job.
After leaving the post office I drove back to the bus stop. She was still there. “How about if I give you a ride to T-Mobile?” I said. “I’ve got to go to Best Buy and I’ll be driving right by there.”
She was deeply appreciative. “The orientation starts at 3:30. I just looked at the schedule and my transfer leaves at 3:09.” “That’s cutting it close for a job interview,” I told her. “It’s better to get there too early than too late.”
We found the T-Mobile building. “Oh, look,” she said excitedly as we turned down the call center’s street. “There’s a covered bus stop with a seat. That’s so great!”
I kept thinking that this morning I had spent half an hour researching Honda generators on the Internet. We already have a generator to keep our well, refrigerator, and such running when the electricity goes out. I wanted a better one, something quieter, easier to start, with inverter technology so I could keep on using my computer and watch TV.
The sophisticated 7000 watt generator I was considering costs $3295. We could afford it. This woman was getting out of my car and thanking me profusely. She had almost nothing to her name. I hoped that she couldn’t see the guilt streaming out of my pores.
I thought about driving to an ATM, getting $100 out, and telling her that this was a loan so she could get her Ford Fiesta a week early and not have to hitchhike into town to catch a bus at 6 in the morning. But I sensed a lot of pride in her. It didn’t feel right. I kept my mouth shut.
“Wish me luck with getting the job,” she said. “Luck, I wish you,” I told her. She smiled and headed toward the T-Mobile front door. I drove off to Best Buy.
Thinking…I’m so glad I stopped to give her a ride…We’re so damn fortunate…There’s so many people out there struggling to just get by, whose dream is to purchase a $200 car that you start with a screwdriver, who spend hours waiting at bus stops to get to a $10 an hour job…We aren’t aware of them, we who zip by the bus stops in our 2004 Prius on the way to buy a broadband router for our $69 a month Internet connection that we’ll keep going with a $3295 Honda generator.
There’s something seriously wrong with our country. And me. I don’t know what to do about it. Or if I really even want to do anything about it. I want everything that I have now. Plus, more.
I’m selfish. I carefully titer my charitable impulses, giving just enough help to people less well off than me to keep my guilt at a level that won’t interfere with my own happiness. Once in a while, like this afternoon, the real world breaks through my protective progressive bubble. I get a glimpse of what it’s like, really like, for those at the bottom end of the income ladder.
It’s tough to see. On my way to Best Buy I shed a few tears.