to help a stranger

Broken-down-car-drawing-in-inkShe came at me from across the busy street. I was sitting in my car with the door open, enjoying the breeze, listening to the rustling of the trees, preparing for my upcoming tutoring session. I watched her cross — alone and carrying nothing — and thought it odd, but I looked away. I didn’t expect her to stop.

“E-excuse me? Miss?”

I looked over. The girl appeared to be about my age and was wearing faded jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. Her reddish hair was pulled into an oily ponytail at the nape of her neck. “Uh, hi,” I said.

“Can you give me a ride?”

Umm . . . I looked at the clock in my dashboard. 5:45. “Where do you need to go? I have to be somewhere in 15 minutes.”

“My car broke down,” the girl hurried to explain. “It’s not far. My friend’s house. It’s about 5 minutes from here, off Rheem Boulevard.” She looked near tears.

Umm . . . “Uh, sure,” I said. What else could I say? “Yeah, I can do that.” I looked down at the textbooks and papers strewn across my lap and passenger seat beside me. My half eaten salad from Whole Foods sat atop the dash. “Hang on just a sec.” I grabbed the textbooks and salad container and tossed them in the back seat. The papers I gathered into a pile on my lap. “Come on in.”

The girl climbed in. As she did, I noticed — she had a faint odor, like stale sweat and body odor. I had to fight not to wrinkle my nose.

“Okay, so I’m not actually from around here,” I told her. Which was true. I travel nearly 160 miles round-trip once a week to tutor *Sophie right now. “Where are we going again?”

“Rheem Boulevard. It’s that way.” She pointed to a road on our left.

“Okay.” I turned on the car and began driving in the direction of her finger. She didn’t say anything else as we went, and the silence felt awkward; I used it as an opportunity to introduce myself. “I’m Jessica,” I said.

“I’m Stacy.”

“Nice to meet you, Stacy. I’m sorry about your car. So . . . You just left it there?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you not have a cell phone or anything?”

“No. I mean, yes, but my cell phone is dead, and I don’t have any money.”

“Oh . . .” I was at a loss. Stacy seemed prone to lapse into silence between my attempts at conversation. But then she surprised me.

“You’d think people in Moraga would be nice, but they’re really not,” she said. I assumed she was talking about her car. I waited for her to say more, but . . . nothing. I understood what she meant, though. Upon my first visit in Moraga, as I’d watched Mercedes Benzs and BMWs drive through its hilly terrain, I’d felt a strong impression that these people were, if not selfish, very self-absorbed. No one made eye contact, and there was an intense “keeping up with the Joneses” type feel throughout the town. Thankfully Sophie’s family was an exception.

“I know what you mean,” I said after a moment. I looked at the clock. 5:50. Were we close? I didn’t want to be late . . . Then it occurred to me: Had I been foolish? After all, I knew nothing about this girl. Could I trust her? I glanced at her through the corner of my eye, but her face was blank; I could detect nothing. “Are we getting close?” I asked finally.

“Yes, it’s coming up soon. It’s going to be up here on the left. It’s . . . right there.” She pointed to a cul-de-sac twenty yards ahead.

“Gotcha.” I turned on my blinker and turned left at the street. “Now where?”

“Umm . . . It’s right there.” I did a U-turn and parked in front of the house she’d indicated. “Well, here we are.”

“Thanks so much,” she told me as she got out the car.

“Hey, no problem,” I told her. “Good luck with your c–,” but she was already shutting the door and walking towards the front door.

Well, that was interesting.

As I drove away — I now had five minutes to get to Sophie’s — I thought about my concerns on the drive over, and how sad it was that I even had to worry about whether or not helping a stranger was the right thing. I knew for certain I wouldn’t have helped Stacy if she’d been a man. Was that because it really wasn’t safe to help a man, or . . .? Or was it something else?

It’s a strange world we live in, but I, for one, want to be kind, helpful, and generous whenever possible, no matter what the risk or ultimate return.

*name changed
Image credit: Leah Whisenant

23 thoughts

  1. You’re the second blogger who has written about an experience like this. The other blogger was a woman also, who helped a man out by taking him into a grocery store and buying him some food for a meal. I applauded her and I applaud you as well. We are all far too willing to try to ignore the hidden people in our society. I work in downtown Sacramento and see so many homeless people, mentally ill people, and people just down on their luck and I so rarely stop and help. Thanks for the reminder that there’s nothing wrong with helping.

    • Yes, King, there are homeless everywhere, but especially in cities. Santa Rosa is full of them. I don’t think people should feel badly for not stopping to help every homeless person they see. I think the best way to help someone is in a tangible way — not with money, but with a favor like I did, or like that woman who bought that man food. Or even with just a smile of acknowledgment. You mentioned mental illness — it’s true that mental illness is often a factor in homelessness. I see it all the time.

      It’s cool that you’re in Sacramento, by the way. I grew up in Placerville and still consider all of that area “home.” :)

      • Yes. One person can’t help them all, but there are small steps we each could take that put together might make a difference.

        I’ve been in the Sacramento area for almost 50 years now. Sigh… one of the main reasons I’m ready to live somewhere else. ;)

      • I was ready to leave, too. It’s too hot in Sacramento! Santa Rosa is far from perfect — I don’t plan to stay here long-term, either — but the coastal gray in the mornings sure is nice!

        I agree with you about the small steps thing, by the way. If only more people thought outward instead of the opposite.

  2. Is ingesting. Do appearances affect who we help? Does the gender of the person needing help have an influence and why? I’ve helped strangers when I can and sometimes not. I often ask why.

    • I hear what you mean. And I perhaps spoke too harshly when I said I wouldn’t have helped a man in similar circumstances. I guess I should just say I might be more wary. Why? Because he’s a man and I’m a woman. I’m strong for a woman, but I don’t need to be putting myself at unnecessary risk… That’s why I’d say it depends on the situation. You have to trust your gut. If you feel that the person asking you for help is genuine, by all means, go for it! But if you sense that something is off, listen to your heart.

  3. This was a nice thing to do Jess. You were in a tough spot but you made a good call and it sounds like you tried to help do more than just provide a ride. I understand your concerns and I wouldn’t recommend giving a ride to a man. I know it’s sexist and stereotypical, but the danger is real, and there are other ways to help without putting yourself in danger.

    • You caught my drift exactly, Dan. Like I said in a comment above, it’s not that I’d never help a man. I guess it really comes down to the situation and what my gut is telling me. I’ve learned to listen to my heart.

  4. May I say however that in spite of the poor girl’s troubles, a simple look in the eye with gratitude would have gone a long way. I’m generous and will assume that she simply not together at the moment.

    You are very kind to help, Jess. As for folks in Moraga, I’m sure they too are kind and capable of showing it. But there are many who forgot how.

    • Yes, Bruce, I have to admit: her behavior was a little unsettling. She seemed nervous and unsure. She wasn’t even clear in her story about her car. I just did what you did and assumed it was because of the circumstances under which we met.

      I also didn’t mean to chide the people of Moraga. I’m sure there *are* many nice people there. It’s just a vibe I’ve gotten during my visits there. But generalizations are only just that — generalizations.

  5. The poor girl. I hope she finds her way. I’m sure she must have been very appreciative. It was very nice of you to help her out, though you knew it was risky. Interesting time that you right this post…I’m working on a post of trust, and it surprises me how often we trust without knowing or thinking much about it.

    • Thanks, Mabel. I don’t know. I just felt like I was doing what was right, and trusting my gut that doing the right thing was right… I will be looking forward to your post on trust!

    • Thank you, Dina! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think the risk of helping others is almost always worth it. Ultimately what it comes down to is learning to trust your heart.

  6. Very uplifting story ~ and it seems you do embrace this mystery in life that requires us to go out an experience…to really see people and things for what they are. In the end, while there is always a risk – the reward is so much better. Take care Jessica.

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