Have you ever experienced a moment of quiet rage? One of those things that sneaks up on you and suddenly you find yourself shaking and wondering how something like this could happen?
I was heading to a petrol station to fill up my wife's car. She works, and I don't and that is another story for another time. Tonight's tale deals with what happened when I got there. I was pulling into the station, at night, late at night and against my better judgment. I don't live in a particularly dangerous neighborhood, but as any city dweller can tell you, crime is mobile.
I take the proper precautions as I get out of my vehicle. Check around me, two people in station, filling their vehicles, trying to look bored and nonchalant; so not working. They want to leap into their cars and drive away as fast as they are able but they don't want to LOOK like that.
No obvious foot traffic. Check. Sign on the window says "open 24 hours." Check. Car in park. Lights off. Check. Clearance on driver's side. Check. Pump active. Check.
Get out of car. Look confident. Glance around. Take in the lay of the land, and project power. Check. As I am going through this checklist, I notice a man sitting on a the hood of a small SUV or covered flatbed truck. He is a tall man, kind of lean, unshaven, looks to be about fifty or so. He is holding a bright red gas can. His head is dipped forward as if he is engaged in some inner dialog.
As I am moving toward the front door of the gas station storefront, he sees me and jumps up. "Hey brother, could you spare some gas, a couple, maybe three gallons?" His voice is clear, he does not mumble, he does not sound intoxicated. He sounds like a man who is not used to asking for anything.
Not seeking confrontation, I scurry inside. I try not to look at the man but my inner Observer, something from my days as military personnel, objectively, dispassionately, gathers all of this information. I notice there is a woman sitting in the car behind him. She too appears to be about fifty years old. But it was not just the woman that I noticed. Behind her, I see materials that might be house furnishings; things that looked as if they were moving. I continue inside.
Now, my inner Observer challenges me. You can't unsee that. "Can I get twenty dollars on six, please."
"Will that be credit or ATM?" says the Persian gentleman behind the counter, wearing a crisp and new shirt and a mild musky cologne. His smile seems genuine and his tone friendly.
Don't ignore me. You saw the man, you saw the woman, you saw their car. They have food wrappers on their dash and furniture in the back of their car. Observe, report, analyse. "Yes, that will be ATM."
Did I mention I was an autistic? I have conversations with myself all the time. So don't think I am crazy or become upset. This is normal for me. Anyway...
"What is the price of your gas here?" I asked the nice attendant. Yes, I drove past the sign coming in but unfortunately, that is something I have a mental block against, living in California. You just buy the gas, you don't really want to know what it costs. It always costs a dollar more than anywhere else in the nation.
You have acknowledged his existence and have made a decision. Why prevaricate? You are going to spend enough to get three gallons of gasoline, enough to fill up that red container. Do it! How could you stand there, they are living out of their damn car...
The Observer falls silent, his work done.
The attendant does not know what the price of the gas here is, which is not really surprising since he probably does not get paid enough for it to matter to him, either. At that point, I did not care what it cost. I walk to the door and wave to the man. Seeing me, he waves back and moves toward the pump next to my car.
I am self-conscious. I do not know why.
"Ten dollars on pump six, please." The station agent looks at me quizzically since I just bought gasoline for pump five. He assumes I have made a mistake and looks out the window.
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Yes, I am buying it for that man right there." I use the tone of command, to let him know I am aware of what I am doing and will only require his cooperation at this point. He complies.
When I walk out the store. The man is pumping his gas and as I approach him, he says to me "God Bless you, brother." His voice is rich with emotional undertones and I am again unnerved. I am not a religious man, so his benedictions made me uncomfortable. I did not do it for God. I did it for... Who did I do it for? The Observer wisely stays silent.
"No problem. Will that get you where you need to be?" trying to sound casual.
He out-casuals me with "Hope so."
As I get ready to pump my gas, he stops me. "My can is full. Let's put the rest in yours. Don't hang your pump up, I'm just going to finish what's on this one. He smiles as he pumps the rest of the gas into my tank and then picks up his gas can and says "Thanks, again."
I fill my tank. My thoughts are racing and the first thing that comes to me is, that could be me in a few months. I have no job and no income. For me unemployment ended this month. But this fellow looks like he has been living in his car for some time. I began to feel that burning, that anger, that frustration stirring in my chest, the feeling I spend my days suppressing and my nights sweating.
As I finish, I look over at their white flatbed, and the woman, possibly his wife, looks at me and waves. I wave back. I thought I would feel good doing this deed. No I didn't. I thought I would absolve myself of any guilt I felt watching this man sit here at this station, waiting for some salvation, some humanity in an age where human kindness is in short supply, where no one but the rich or the lucky have money or a job. A man in a number of months who may be me. I wanted to do more for them.
But then I thought about it. I did not actually have any money with me, and I was doing something spending what I did not actually have. (My money was actually the stipend my wife gives me for doing housework during the week while I look for work.) I mostly don't spend it. I found that as long as I don't leave home, I don't actually need money. And if I don't carry cash, I absolutely won't buy anything I don't need. I had to settle myself with having done what I could do. I had been as much of a friend as I could afford to be.
As I was contemplating the feelings I was having, I realized what it was. I was in pain. I was uncomfortable. I was saddened and distressed by seeing these two people, forced by circumstances unknown to me, to be living in their vehicle. And for a moment, I was overwhelmed by that feeling. I normally pride myself on my dispassion. My ability to observe, with detachment.
The Observer, the part of my rational mind that sits outside of what I call me, remembers something I heard Jim Morrison say at an interview: "People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but that's bullshit. Love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they're afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they're wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. It's all in how you carry it. That's what matters. Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you're letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain."
Sometimes I hate the Observer. It is the part of me that makes me participate in all things human, even when I do not want to. Mostly, I don't want to. My pain is uncomfortable, but for the first time in weeks, I am outside of myself; outside of my selfish desire to wallow in my misery, feeling sorry for myself. I had a chance to find myself again. To renew my opportunities, to find work worthy of my ability. It was not too late. I still had my home, my family, I still had some time.
As I pull away from the station, I pass the man putting his gas into his car, his actions precise and careful. He sees me as I drive by. He and his wife wave at me again, and I wave back. There was something in my eye and I needed to wipe it away.
At 11:35, August 25, 2010, two strangers passed in the night. One in need of a friend; the other, a friend, in need. We worked it out.
Thaddeus Howze © 2010, All Rights Reserved