Scene: the greater Cincinnati area, a Speedway gas station. Heat shimmered from the pavement driving mixed particulates of gasoline, oil and humidity upward in silvery ribbons. I sat in the car waiting for my tank to fill, another middle-class Ohio mom in a mid-sized SUV on her way to a part-time shift at work, jamming to The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” and enjoying the occasional stir of air from open windows.
“Excuse me. Miss?”
The words that startled me came from a dark-haired man in his late 20′s, wearing a white tank and work pants, such as would be worn by a workman under an embroidered work shirt. Sweat shimmered on his brow, and his left arm was already outstretched in a gesture toward a large, once-luxury sedan behind him, parked beside the air compressor at the edge of the lot. Through the open windows I could see plush, dark upholstery on the seats. Upholstery that simply had to radiate heat like an unwelcome seat warmer in this weather. The young man looked stressed, eyebrows raised questioningly.
“Do you have 75 cents? Could I have 75 cents? I need air in one of my tires, and it takes, the machine takes 75 cents to make it go. Gotta get to Dayton. But I don’t have anything.”
I had reached into the change compartment in my car before he got to “tires,” so I said “Sure,” and reached out with three quarters in my palm.
He stepped forward to take it. Nodded at me. Stepped backward before speaking again. “Thanks. I really appreciate it. I really need to get to Dayton for work. If I don’t get some air in that tire, I don’t know what’ll happen. Just, thanks so much,” he said.
“No problem. Really,” I said. “I’m glad to do it. We’re all short now & again, and always at the worst time.”
“Thanks,” he said, looked at me one last time, shared a mutual half-smile with me and waved wearily, turning away, as the pump signalled with a loud click that my tank was full. I got out. Topped off. (I have a thing for even amounts. Topped off an extra 16 cents to make it an even seventy-five dollars. The amount wasn’t lost on me.)
I felt happy, briefly, to have had a small human moment. I go through my days often isolated, except for interactions with my immediate family and friends on Twitter. It felt good. So small. Not really worth much fuss. Maybe I made a difference, prevented a turning point that could have been bad. Maybe I postponed the inevitable, for one day. I’ll never know. Such a tiny generosity isn’t worth any congratulations. Not at all. On the contrary.
But the moment also aroused some discontent, unease.
He half-expected me to say no. It was written on him.
I saw his uncertainty. The humility. The slight hope. And THAT, over such a small courtesy, causes me a combination of extreme sadness and absolute rage.
I know people who would say this guy was a beggar. That he “worked” me. That it’s a mistake to let him get close to me with my wallet nearby, and that he came to a “low state” through his own choices. Some of them would even say that it’s good for him to learn to maintain his car better, and I should have allowed him to live with the consequences of his own failure. Seriously. We know those people. I have some in my own family, and those voices live in my head along with the voice of caution that warns against talking to strangers asking for money.
But he was awfully specific. He didn’t ask for much. Not one dollar, or five, or ten. He asked for seventy-five cents, three quarters. And his eyes shows a gratitude that makes me almost ashamed to admit how much it had cost me to fill up my own tank, and how little thought I had given it while I sat as the pump ran, jamming in my car, lost in my own life.
Air. All this guy needed to make it work was air.
But even air isn’t free anymore. It used to be. Once upon a time, gas stations had compressors freely available and maintained at the edge of the lot, open for use by travelers local or making their way cross country. It was one of the courtesies provided at no charge. A loooong while ago, a serviceperson would have come out and filled your tire for you, checked your fluid levels, cleaned your windshield. A boon to travelers, I’ll bet it was, not that I’m usually the nostalgic sort.
Yessss, I’ve been told that compressors are expensive, difficult to maintain, often fall victim to vandals. (And you know who you are, the first person who heard this tale. Grrr…) Call me a clueless bleeding-heart liberal for it, but I simply don’t care in this case. Surely the profit margin on the $.06 worth of soda we all pay $1.49 for in hundreds of separate transactions must, must amount to something. I guarantee you that the hot dogs aren’t worth a whole dollar each, even if you count the condiments. I’ve had lots of ‘em. Maybe some of that margin should go toward providing an air compressor.
None of us should begrudge another mere air.
This man has the car. He has the gas. He has the tires, although one is obviously leaking. He has a job, one that he needs, and which obviously doesn’t pay big bucks, but I’ll bet he actually produces something with his hands. How many people make millions of dollars a year and never, ever have to worry about a deflating tire but produce nothing tangible or of true worth?
The small experience again reminded me of how far the spirit of… supporting one another has fallen in this country. Of mutual good will. The sense of being there for one another and investing in the things that make it possible for people to grow, learn, succeed, prosper, no matter what their beginnings. True, we come together in times of trauma, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, where the high are laid low along with the already-low. What about ordinary days? When people are going about their business, doing their absolute best to get through one day? Very little respect is given to the dignity and worth of people who get up and work every day. Even less concern or caring is shown for their quality of life, their access to healthcare, childcare, quality food, education, and all the other resources that make it possible to get “all the way to Dayton.”
What is wrong with us, that the notion of the common good has been lost in public discourse? For all the talk of Christianity, it’s no longer the religion my mother held to. Many megachurches in my area pat themselves on the back for their righteousness and celebrate how successfully some member of Congress have represented their hateful perversion of what my mom believed. This new prosperity-gospel says “If you’re poor it’s because God thinks you deserve to be, so I won’t help you.”
Put the compressor back on the curb, and open that baby up. I’ll pay an extra few dollars to make sure it’s there when I need it, or you need it. The same goes for a public option, good education through the college level, and so many other fundamental characteristics of a healthy society.
Air. Just air in the tires. People aren’t asking for much.