I pulled into our favorite gas station the other day after a quick session of running errands. There are two clusters of gas stations within five minutes of our house. Depending on whether you turn left or right at a particular intersection, there is usually a 30-cent price differential. There doesn’t appear to be any logic behind this, as both sides of the intersection are a mix of all sorts of major brands of gas, as well as weird Econo-brands that are of questionable quality. The cheaper side has a lot of banks, the other has two 7-Elevens and a CVS. Maybe the cheaper side of the intersection is supposedly seedier or otherwise “the wrong side” of the tracks, or possibly it’s all a giant conspiracy designed to draw traffic to the laser tag place behind the Shell station on the cheaper side. (And really, laser tag is reason enough to always choose the cheaper side.)
So, there I am pumping gas after going through the five-minute process to load up my grocery store points to get an even bigger per-gallon discount. I usually tune out my brain during this mundane few minutes of life. This station has TV screens playing sports highlights and week-old news clips, but most of them have been washed out by constant exposure to sunlight, so I typically don’t pay much attention. Sometimes I try to see if I can time how long it takes to pump one gallon, but usually I’m just staring blankly.
This particular evening, a young lady’s voice interrupted my slightly vegetative state.
“Excuse me sir, I’m not asking for money, I just need enough for a gallon of gas. My mom took the five that I had in my car and we literally just ran out of gas as we pulled in here.”
Slightly startled, I turned my focus to her. She was young, probably in her late teens, no more than twenty. Her dirty-blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing her boyfriend’s too-large coat. No makeup, maybe she’d even been crying. She looked distraught, but not merely from running out of gas – it was clear she was suffering through the latest of many crises in her young life. From my side of the pump, I could just barely make out a long-haired guy, presumably the owner of the coat, sitting in the passenger seat of their beat-up old Honda Civic.
Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough or know me in real life, you know that I am a Christian. You also probably know that I don’t usually feel the need to proselytize nor be super expressive and open about it, but it’s not like I’m hiding it, either. So of course I’m familiar with the Golden Rule, “What Would Jesus Do?”, and all those other great verses about helping your neighbor. But, this being a gas station on the “seedy” side of the road in a large metropolitan area not too far from DC, I was, despite myself, instantly wary.
“I’m sorry,” I replied back to her, as if that was somehow a real reply. And I turned back to my gas pump, suddenly transfixed by the digital readout. Seeing that she wasn’t going to get any more out of me, she slumped back into her car.
Immediately, my mind was racing and guilt was pouring through me. Why was that my first reaction?
Well, for one, I’ve been burned by seemingly honest requests before. Years ago, shortly after starting work in DC, I was accosted by a man in a wheelchair asking for money in a Metro station. He had a picture badge – with a lanyard and everything, so it had to be official – saying he was a Katrina refugee being housed in the DC Armory not too far away. I gave him some money without thinking too much about it. A few weeks later, I saw the same guy in a different Metro station, walking around upright with no trouble. Either my $5 had helped him complete the final payment for a miracle medical procedure, or I’d been duped.
Years after that, Gina and I were in a parking lot of a grocery store, and I stupidly rolled down my passenger side window to see what this youngish man who had appeared out of nowhere wanted. He spouted some nonsense about also being a Hokie (since he’d noticed the VT stickers all over our car) and about how his sick sister was across the road in the McDonald’s parking lot, and they needed money to get to the hospital. I mumbled an apology and hastily rolled the window back up, Gina rightly admonishing me for exposing us to someone clearly a little unbalanced, and I felt bad about it for a time.
From homeless people on the streets of the city to the downtrodden holding handwritten signs at busy intersections, I have been numbed to their condition despite myself. The usual trains of thought now pop into my head: “They’re just going to use it to buy drugs / get drunk.” “If he has enough time to stand around and write a sign, he has enough time to go looking for a job.” You know the drill, and many of us have thought the same things.
How are we, in the midst of our busy lives, supposed to filter out the legitimate requests from those that are not? How do we know who’s going to help themselves or not? Is there any such thing as an illegitimate cry for help?
By the time my tank was full, the girl had moved on to begging another lady who had pulled into the pump in front of me. I was finishing my transaction when my conscience finally got the best of me. Finishing my payment and setting the pump down into its slot next to the 87-octane sticker, I walked over to the attendant’s window.
“So there’s a couple of kids over on pump three asking people for money for gas. What’s their story? Are they for real?” I asked the man through the bank teller glass.
He looked surprised. “Uh, well, they just got here.”
So at least they hadn’t been bumming people for money all day. I briefly ran the risk analysis in my head and figured the simplest way to honor their request, and to be sure it was used for the intended purpose, was to be the middleman and just pay for their gas.
“All right, I’ll buy them a gallon,” I replied, slipping the cash that I had in hand under the bank-teller style pass-through.
The transaction completed, I turned around to find the second lady the girl had talked to in line behind me. Seeing she’d had the same idea, I let her know what I’d just done, and she looked a little relieved as she put away her pocketbook and headed back to her car.
On my way back, I stopped by the despondent girl and her still-immobile boyfriend.
“I just bought you guys a gallon,” I said, trying not to sound high-and-mighty-look-what-I’ve-just-done-for-you.
Her eyes lit up. “Thank you so much!” I nodded, smiled awkwardly in a “you’re welcome” gesture, and got into my car.
As I drove away, I reflected on whether her story had been believable. I decided that I could certainly imagine many scenarios where a jobless teenager and her lazy boyfriend would be strapped for cash and faced with a parent who would steal gas money from their car. But I could also imagine scenarios where that story was completely fabricated.
In the end, though, it wasn’t the story itself that sold me. She could have made up anything.
I suppose part of it was my conscience, part of it guilt, and partly my sense of charity stemming from my faith. But really, more than anything, as I stood there pumping gas, I realized that being cynical all the time is tiring. The numbing to other people’s problems, the shell that you have to erect in order to make it through modern suburban life, doesn’t have to be impermeable. I don’t want to always assume the worst of everyone. So buying these kids a gallon of gas was a tiny, small stand against my – and by extension, the world’s – indifference. It was an all-too-rare chance to make someone’s life better, however briefly, and at least I know they actually used what I gave them.
I headed home, wondering how far a gallon would take the young couple, whether it would be far enough to escape their problems or lead them into more, whether they would lean on each other in the dark times or if they would finally break up, whether she would reconcile with her mother, and whether the sunny days would ever outnumber the cold and gray ones in their lives.
At the stoplight, I paused. Then I turned the corner and moved on.