We couldn’t get on the road until well after dark. Years ago, I would pack a Thermos of coffee and a few snacks. Little towns had yet to see yellow arches. Gas stations offered pots of coffee which had usually been sitting for a couple of hours. On a bitter November night, a few swigs of black bean hit the spot.
Just off the interstate, the rest area was fairly new and sat at the top of a little mountain which gave down into miles of harvested land. Other mountains were nearby but the scraggy fields and far spaced small towns reflected nothing but space. I got out of the car and gazed up into the night sky.
A few cars were parked at the curb next to the brick building. Park benches and picnic tables stood away from the building. Another car was parked more closely than the others. It was old and battle worn. A man leaned under the hood, messing with something. A non-descript item like a pillow or blanket and paper trash were smashed up into the rear window and blocked a passenger window.
Burt and I walked into the rest area without mentioning the old car.
I walked into the Ladies and immediately got the picture. I said hello. The room was stuffy from the two hand dryers hanging near the faucet. Harsh lighting and yellow tiles reflected into a wavy polished metal mirror scratched by more than just an uneven lipstick. I walked past and into a stall.
Instant dilemma. What should I do? I had never seen anything like this before. A mother was standing by a hand dryer. The sound never seemed to end as she regularly pushed the button to keep the warm air near her daughters. I had never seen anyone like her before. She was a large woman draped in ill-fitting clothes that appeared to have been worn a long time without washing. Her face and hair were not clean.
At her feet, two little girls huddled together on a blanket, children sitting on the floor of a rest area in a blanket to be used for sleeping. They were wearing thin clothing. There was no hint of the rosy blush of a sweet childhood. They needed good food, warm clothes, hot water and a soft bed.
Frankly, my twenty-two years were in shock over this situation. What could I do to help them?
I had a twenty in my pocket. A twenty would buy a week’s worth of groceries. My parents always gave me money for my pocket when Burt and I were leaving. I could give the woman the twenty. I felt compelled that this was the right thing for me to do.
I listened to some of her story. I could only help this much but I hoped it would get them down the road. She was very appreciative and blessed me profusely. I almost had to turn my eyes away from the girls. I had never seen two little girls in such a dire situation. They didn’t offer any smiles, huddled together on the blanket, on the floor of the restroom, warming under the hand dryers like baby chicks under a light.
I had had an almost religious experience giving the woman the twenty dollars. In my immature twenties, I didn’t know if she was there to bless me and my generosity or if I was there to offer her hope and a minimum of salvation. My heart seemed to overflow, no matter which reason. I even thought maybe she was an angel.
But in not too many more minutes, Burt pointed out it was probably a scam. I should have tried to get the little girls help on that bitter November night. I failed even though I thought I had offered Christian charity. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I waved goodbye to my parents. I left without anyone giving me even one dollar bill.
Last week, a young man walked up to a group of my friends as we stood outside saying goodbye. When he first walked up, I assumed he was a high school boy going into the restaurant. He was wearing khakis and a yellow hoodie. His hair was neat.
He stopped and asked if we could help him. Those words. “Can you help me?” He had run out of gas and the filling station (next door) wanted 14.95 to loan a gas can. Here was a picture of his car. Here was the phone screen where he had tried to call his father. He was 17 and lived in “Pricey Neighborhood.” Just a few miles down the road. He was politely pleading, to this group of ladies – grandmothers, retired ladies, working women - a very compassionate group to come across in your time of need – good Christian women.
Three of us walked to our cars, the only cars on the other side of the building. First one friend pulled out of her place and then the friend next to me. I backed out and put my car in drive. I am startled to see the boy running across the grass, straight for my car. I brake to stop. My window was barely rolled down. He has pulled up his hood and is standing with his hands in his pocket. So close to my window I can see the cratered skin of severe drug abuse.
“Mam, please, anything. Change. Just quarters.” For a minute I remember I have a handful of quarters in my purse. But something in me remains resolute. I had a twenty in my pocket. But I was afraid. He was so close to my car. My antenna went up. I drove off. The paper has been full of purse snatchings and robberies.
Was I supposed to put my car into park, open my purse and look for quarters or pull the twenty from my pocket? My instinct urged me to drive away.
I doubt he was seventeen or lived in the nearby fancy neighborhood. But he belongs to someone. Is a Mama sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, thinking about her son? What if he were my son? I could only hope someone would help him.
I’ll never know if he was a scam or a thief waiting for me to roll down the window. His face is still clear in my mind. I don’t know how much favor I can afford him.
People are literally running to us for help. Blocking our pathways. Interupting our conversations. Startling our senses. So many people need help that we are overwhelmed, frightened and exhausted. What can we do? How do we know?
A little voice inside of me. Lord, give me heart and courage. And a pocketful of twenties.