The Kindness of Strangers

One of the best things about being a stepparent before being a biological parent is that you get some practice in before you screw up your own kid. Given that, you’d expect that when my 8-year old’s teacher calls or emails that I would handle it calmly, right? Nope. As soon as I see a call or email from the teacher, I totally lose it.

So when my husband and I see an email last week from the teacher asking if one of us can come and have lunch with our daughter, I jump on it right away. Despite the fact that this is all about our daughter having a small meltdown while presenting her Science Fair project, I still treat this as a pretty dire emergency. Heart racing, I leave the office as soon as possible, dramatically jog to the parking garage, and speed to my daughter’s favorite local burger joint with just enough time to order quickly and make it in the nick of time.

The line is endless and slow. I begin tapping my fingers nervously on the steering wheel and turn on some smooth jazz to calm my nerves. And before you judge, try listening to smooth jazz when you’re stressed. It works wonders. Smooth jazz is an acquired taste and it’s quite delicious if I do say so myself.

At the very same time I’m inching up to pay, my car lurches forward and stops. I attempt to start it. Nada. This goes on a few times and then it hits me. I’m out of gas. Out of gas! That pesky “fuel level low” light had been mocking me for what, a few hours? A day? Not possible! So I do what any other normal person would do given that situation. I begin screaming and flailing my hands in the air.

“Help! Help! I’m out of gas! I have-to-take-my-daughter-lunch-because-she-needs-me! Help me!”

The girl working the window rolls her eyes and motions for me to pull up. The Blonde Lexus SUV Driver behind me honks for me to move forward. The drivers behind her are pumping their fists, and not at all gently. In Austin, a place where we’re supposed to all be a little bit hippie, a little bit rock and roll, in times of traffic or car trouble this city turns into one big doodoo head.

Blonde Lexus SUV Driver catches on to what’s happening and rolls her window down and shouts, “Bless your heart!”

That instantly makes me love her so I yell politely, “Could you push my car up a little bit with your car?”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” she says awkwardly. “I don’t really feel comfortable…”

“No, I understand,” I say, crestfallen. “I just don’t know what to do…”

I spot a man dressed in his best business casual attire and honk at him, stick my head out the window and yell,

“PLEASE, sir, you HAVE to help me! Please come push my car!”

At this point I realize that someone has sent a small fry cook out of the kitchen to help, so the business casual man joins in the effort and they begin pushing my largish SUV out of the way. It’s become painfully clear that not only will I be quite late for my daughter’s lunch, I may not make it at all.

I thank the gentlemen for helping me and run inside to pay. I discover to my delight that there’s a gas station next door, so I run over, juggling bags and drinks, burst in the door and scream, “I need to borrow your gas can! I have to go to my daughter’s school right this minute!”

This falls on deaf/non-English speaking ears as the Vietnamese store owner stares at me, petting his Pomeranian and looking at me quizzically.

PLEASE! PLEASE help me! I’m out of gas and need a gas can! I have to take food to my daughter! She needs me!”

And with that, the guilt overwhelms me and I burst into crazy woman tears.

This startles the store owner, but suddenly something clicks. He drops the Pomeranian and turns into a superhero I’d like to refer to as The Vietnamese Savior. He runs around the counter and we scurry to the back of the store to the display designed for blonde mothers who run out of gas. From there it’s a bit of a blur, because he’s doing all the work, and I’m crying and apologizing all over the place. Yet for some unknown reason, this kind man leaves his store in the care of a 4-pound dog, and runs with me at full speed to the restaurant parking lot where my car is parked. He empties a bit of gas into my tank while I call the school secretary and give her a tearful update. My car starts, and The Vietnamese Savior hangs onto the gas can and I agree to come back later to fetch it.

By the time I run into the cafeteria my daughter is halfway through the lunch she was supposed to eat before the day’s drama took place. She’s tearstained, but so is her mother. She’s delighted to see a cold burger, soggy fries and a watery lemonade. Instead of focusing on her drama, we spend the remaining lunchtime talking about mine. Her friends listen to my story on the edge of their seats because my daughter’s friends have parents who would never in a million years run out of gas. I have a feeling that night, several kids told my story while their parents shook their heads and said, “Those Arndts!”

So I drive back to the gas station to retrieve my gas container and find the owner and his Pom. He seems oddly excited to see me, and runs around the counter to present the gas can to me. He’s taken extreme care to seal it up with about 46 rubber bands and a Ziplock bag, and put the entire thing in a trash bag for safekeeping. He smiles proudly.

“Oh, you know what?” I ask, a completely different version of the woman he met an hour earlier. “Why don’t you keep it? When the next person runs out of gas they can borrow it from you.”

This does not bode well with The Vietnamese Savior.

“No! You take it! You pay for it already. It yours!” He’s disappointed.

I spend some time convincing him that this is good for The Universe. I draw a large picture of The Universe with my hands to help ease the language barrier. I explain that because I needed something and because he was so nice to help me, I would love to help the next person. Somehow I convince him despite his objections. After all, he’d worked pretty hard on that rubberbanding.

I promise that I will return to buy gas from my savior again (the old fashioned way), and also promise to pray for him and his family. I have NO idea what possessed me to say that. It’s not my style to tell someone I’m going to pray for them, but at the time, it felt fitting. And when I retold the story to the family while we were driving to dinner that night, I said a prayer out loud for my savior, his family, and the Pom.

Two days later I’m in the grocery store with my daughter. We’re sharing the cart-pushing duty and speeding through the meat department when suddenly I see an oddly familiar face. The Vietnamese Savior!

“Oh my goodness! It’s you!” I scream. “Get over here!” And with that, I hug him a little too closely for someone with whom I’ve only spent 3 minutes and 37 seconds. He hugs back. We stand there smiling and laughing, and I introduce my daughter and learn his name is Mr. Tran.

“You okay now? I was worried about you!”

I explain to him that I wouldn’t have been okay without his help. As we wave goodbye, I tell Mr. Tran that I prayed for him, and he smiles and nods, probably because he thinks I’m saying that I paid for him, but whatever — it’s the thought that counts.

Later that day my husband pointed out that my search for a Little Man isn’t really necessary, because little men arrive to help me out all the time. The gas incident alone resulted in three separate strangers helping me out, expecting nothing in return. And while I can’t promise I won’t ever run out of gas again, or lock my keys in my car, or do something else embarrassingly blonde, I can promise this: if you find me in a pinch and you help me, I’ll dial up Jesus (or Mr. Tran), and say a little prayer for you.

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