“We’re low on gas,” he said. “I’ll take the next exit.”
It was late, after 10:00 on Christmas Eve-Eve, and we had already been traveling for seven hours. Between a flurry of last-minute errands and heavy holiday traffic, it had been a much longer than normal drive, but the kids had been behaving beautifully and the weather was good.
At 7:30 on the dot, as though a switch was flipped, both children had fallen asleep in the back seat, allowing their parents to indulge in a deep, intense conversation about past events and history. It felt a little scary. Some topics are just so emotionally laden that they get put aside, even though they really should be talked through and thereby defused. We said things to each other that we had been wanting to say for years, and it was done carefully and openly and honestly. It was good, and important. It was also engrossing, such that the gas gauge slipped from the halfway point to the E-zone in a stealthy and sudden manner.
The “Distance to Empty” sensor warned that we had less than 20 miles to go, but the next exit appeared within moments. A highway sign claimed that there was a gas station nearby, so he steered the minivan off the highway instead of pushing on to the bigger town ten miles down the road. Sure enough, within a mile, there was a gas station; closed and locked for the night. Fine, he just continued down the road to the next place, three miles farther; again, closed.
With climbing anxiety and desperate hope, he kept driving, knowing that Cooperstown was about fifteen miles away. We passed through Milford Center, another closed gas station, and then a long stretch of nothing, and then a few towns with names but no street lights. Hartwick appeared, and then faded from the rear view mirror, again without a gas station. The Distance to Empty number got smaller and smaller, and as the children snored, the average blood pressure in the front seat rose.
“Do you still have a membership to AAA?”
“Well, good. We may need it.”
“This road is so dark and narrow, though, and twisty. We’ll need to find somewhere to pull off if we’re going to wait for AAA. I bought fleece blankets for the kids for Christmas, we might need to unwrap those a little early.”
A moment of intense silence, as more curves in the road revealed more dark houses and snow-covered trees.
“Maybe we can make it to Cooperstown.”
Hartwick Seminary announced itself as an orange glow in the winter night sky, and a turn in the road revealed a cluster of chain stores and businesses: a grocery store, a bank or two, several strip-mall shops, two big-name hotel chains. But no gas stations. We received two bits of information in quick succession: a road sign proclaimed Cooperstown to be three miles away, and the Distance to Empty sensor dropped to 0. The decision was made to turn around and go to the nearest hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, in hopes that they would be able to direct us to a closer gas station, or give us a warm and safe place to wait while we attempted to find a taxi, or simply provide a well-lit parking lot to wait for the AAA truck.
Willem, being in the driver’s seat and shifting into an alpha-male, father, protector role, went in, while the kids and I remained in the minivan. Of course they awoke immediately, and realized that a hotel is not the typical choice for gasoline purchases, and so they had a torrent of questions and worries. But we stayed calm, and talked through the possibilities, and found some Moxy Früvous on my iPod, and they sat quietly in their seats. I waited, expecting Willem to come out with a wait time for AAA or a cab.
Instead, he held a set of car keys, and an expression that somehow combined the guilt and frustration of having made a simple, avoidable error, and the astonishment of receiving entirely unexpected, unsought kindness. “The hotel clerk just handed me his keys and told me to take his car. He said there’s a Stewart’s about three miles up the road, but I have to leave right now; they close at 11:00.” We both looked at the clock: 10:51.
There was no time to speak of things like generosity and kindness and gratitude, so we gave each other a wide-eyed stare and then he left. I stayed in the car with the kids, leaving the motor running for heat and listening to the engine cough and wheeze as the minutes ticked by.
Twenty minutes later, Willem returned with a small gas can and an even more astonished facial expression. “They let me just take the gas can with me, and told me to pay for it when we went back to fill the tank. It was the only one in the whole store.”
He poured the 1.97 gallons of gas from the can into the tank, and we watched the Distance to Empty leap up into the thirties. As that number increased, the oxygen level around us seemed to rise proportionately; suddenly I was able to take a deep, slow breath that I hadn’t realized I needed.
He returned to the hotel lobby, to wash his hands, return the clerk’s keys, and offer him compensation for his time and kindness and helpfulness. The clerk accepted his thanks but refused the money.
When Willem was settled back into the driver’s seat, he realized that he had forgotten to ask the man’s name. He had just come out to sit in his car for a cigarette break, and so I hopped out of the van and stepped over. He opened his door, and I thanked him again. He smiled, revealing a mouthful of horribly chipped and discolored teeth, and spoke to me in a heavy Indian accent, saying, “You are welcome. But I will not take your money.” He told me his name was Nasir.
“Please,” I asked him. “You have made such a difference in our evening, and we would like to offer something in return.”
He shook his head.
“Now I feel good in my heart. I am happy to help. Go be with your family.”
I waited a beat, shook my head disbelievingly, and shook his hand, slipping a $20 bill into the map pocket of his door in the process. Maybe he’ll find it right away, or maybe not for months. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t want to offend him by insisting on handing over the money, but I also feel strongly that any good service deserves a tip, and here was immense kindness shown to people who weren’t even customers.
We drove the three miles back to the gas station, with the gas can at my feet, filling the minivan with fumes that were both toxic and symbolic. Once there, Willem filled the tank to bursting, and brought the can back into the store. “I’ve taken the tag off, and there’s still a little gas inside, so I’ll pay for this now,” he told the woman. “But we don’t want to bring it with us; we’d rather leave it here for someone else to use, someday.”
The cashier looked at the gas can and looked at Willem, and gave him a quizzical, do-you-really-think-I’ll-charge-you-for-it look. “This was the only can we had, and we really should keep something on-hand like this in case of emergencies. We’ll keep it here, but you don’t need to pay for it,” she said. “Drive safely.”
And so it was that we added an extra hour of travel time onto our trip, and in that detour we had significant refilling in our faith in basic human kindness. I believe that people will rise or fall to your level of expectation, and that they will generally do the right thing, the good thing, if given the opportunity; but it’s a big step to go from that belief to the actual experience. We were treated with such simple care and respect, without a single caveat being placed on any of it. Nasir could have asked for compensation, or even just to hold a credit card or identification as collateral for his car – a rattly, 150,000-mile sedan filled with the smell of old cigarettes and fast food receipts. The store clerk could have charged for the gas can. Neither did.
Throughout the whole thing, our family stayed calm and talked it all through, so that the kids understood what was going on without panicking. Once we were back on the highway, Emily immediately fell asleep again. Jacob stayed awake, just looking out the window and thinking it all through. Willem and I traded the sort of breathlessly amazed comments about how smoothly it all went, considering some of the more ominous, or simply odious, alternatives. It was a simple mistake that could have ended in any number of ways, but instead was resolved in a remarkably low-key, easy manner.
A cynical piece of me wonders how much the holiday season was predisposing people toward more ready and effusive generosity and helpfulness, but really I believe that it wouldn’t have mattered what time of year it happened. Some people – actually, most people, I think – are just willing to step up and do the right thing, especially when it feels like no big deal to them. Twenty minutes of a stranger borrowing a car while his wife and kids sit within view of the security cameras out front? Letting a customer return a gas can that belonged to some faceless corporation anyway? These things would have barely created a blip on their radar. But they made an enormous difference to us, both in the moment and in the bigger-picture reminder of the kind of lives we want to live.
“Now I feel good in my heart,” he said.