At the very end of “A Streetcar Named Desire’” as the orderlies are taking Blanche DuBois away she tosses off a line that’s stuck with me ever since high school. As she smiles at the doctor, she tells him she’s “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Like Blanche, I’m often in the same boat. My ambition often exceeds my abilities, and when my luck’s ran out, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a helping hand along the way. I don’t have to look any farther than the wall of my garage, where there’s a line of eight one gallon gas cans. No one needs eight one gallon cans, but every time I’ve had to buy one, I needed it in the worst way.
Every one of those cans was bought at a convenience store in the middle of the night, after I’d run out of gas. My mom always said the first time you make a mistake it’s a learning experience, but the second time it’s just a screwup. (She used another word, but my editor says we’re not allowed to print it, so you’ll just have to use your imagination here.)
I’d like to think I’m an eternal optimist, but really, it’s because I’m pressing my luck. You’d think after all of the close calls I’ve had I might’ve learned, but I guess I’m still learning.
Years ago on Christmas Eve, I was on my way back from a party. It was late at night and snowing hard. Headed down the interstate, only a few miles from home I felt a familiar shudder. If you’ve ever run out of gas more than once you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you’re the sort of person that plans ahead and who’s never run out of gas, let me explain. There’s a shudder, almost imperceptible at first, an instant where the needle on the tach starts to waver. Almost before you can suck in your breath, it’s deathly quiet and you’re coasting through the night, eyes peeled for the neon lights of a gas station.
I’ll never forget how cold it was that Christmas Eve, as I stepped out of the car and started walking in the direction of the nearest gas station. The falling snow looked like a million twinkling lights as it fell.
I hadn’t gotten far enough to lose sight of the car when the old pickup pulled up alongside of me. It was dark inside the cab, but I could see the glowing orange ember of a lit cigarette as the door swung open and a voice called out to me, “Whatsamatter kid, car trouble?”
Now I can’t prove this, and I’m sure you won’t believe me, but I’m pretty sure I was about to be rescued by Santa Claus. Inside the cab of the truck was a barrel chested man in a checked red flannel. His long grey hair poked out on all sides from a greasy stocking cap. As I told him about running out of gas he idly tapped his cigarette on the dashboard of truck.
Just about anyone will tell you you’re never supposed to accept rides from strangers, but I’m here to tell, I’ve broken this rule with impunity my entire life and I’m still here. It was cold outside, and even if this guy turned out to be a serial killer instead of Kris Kringle, it still would beat walking in the cold. We didn’t talk much as he took me the gas station and waited for me to buy a single gallon can and fill it at the pump. I tried to thank him when I got back to the car, but he just smiled as he lit a fresh cigarette, and wished me a happy holiday.
I probably wouldn’t have frozen to death that night, nor did I freeze to death any of the other nights I’ve run out of gas. Despite constantly pushing my luck, I’ve always been lucky. I still think about that night, and I wonder if the guy who stopped to make sure a dumb kid didn’t freeze to death thinks about the night as often as I do. As it turns out, a little kindness goes a long way.
Contact David Dolmage at firstname.lastname@example.org