Last night was quite a whirlwind tour of human reactions in extreme times.
kadyg and I were driving back from my parents' place after a nice, quiet afternoon spent socializing and planning our upcoming wedding reception. Driving northbound on I-5, I briefly got stuck in a traffic logjam of the sort that happens on two-lane-wide highways: Lane 2 full of the usual complement of slower cars, and a pickup truck right ahead of me in Lane 1 obliviously driving right next to them at the same speed.
Normally these are momentary hiccups -- the fast-lane guy is passing, just not very quickly. A little patience is the best recourse, especially at 1 a.m., when nobody has any deadlines to meet. But he'd been sitting in the fast lane at 55 (speed limit 65) for a minute or two, and I was starting to get a little edgy. I moved forward a bit toward his rear bumper, trying to give Slow Pickup a hint, so he'd either speed up or slow down --
And this other pickup blows by in the right lane, flickering his high beams, riding the tail of the car to Slow Pickup's right. Suddenly on guard, I drop back, trying to give myself some space from Crazy Pickup. He takes the opportunity and cuts in front of me, unleashing the Wrath of Strobe High Beams on poor Slow Pickup. Ten feet back, I'm wondering what wording I should use when the police collar me as a witness to the upcoming homicide.
Slow Pickup, also alarmed, picks up a bit of speed and leapfrogs past the other slow cars. All this time, Crazy Pickup is sitting on his bumper, treating him to a full 8-10 seconds of continuous high-beam flashing, long beyond the time necessary for Slow to get the message. Slow puts on his right turn signal, then changes his mind as Crazy roars through the tiny gap, passes on the right, and vanishes down the highway.
That scene wasn't the only case where tempers were flaring that night. When I stopped at a gas station, a woman on the verge of tears came up to me and asked for some change for a phone call; her car had apparently broken down 60 miles from home. I was running back and forth a little too much to hear her subsequent call, but I did pass by the booth as she was finishing -- screaming into the receiver, and then slamming it down.
I was running around because as we pulled in, Kady opened up the passenger's side door just in time to violently vomit. (We suspect some lingering food poisoning from a dish we'd both eaten a day or two before; I've been feeling a similar malaise, although nothing quite so extreme yet.) I headed inside through the freezing winds to get some ice, water and napkins for her, which the attendant helpfully supplied.
It was on my way back to the car that the woman asked me for money, actually. I asked her as gently as possible to just hang on for a minute, I'd be happy to help, but my wife was in the process of vomiting -- and her attitude changed like a switch had been flipped. This woman -- begging for aid, in the middle of a crisis, and on the verge of a breakdown -- sniffled, drew herself up a little, and offered me her package of Kleenex to take to Kady.
I've said it before, but it bears repeating: There is no crisis so major that it can't be interrupted by a smaller, stupider crisis closer to home.
As bizarre and/or troubling as all of that was, though, it really doesn't quite compare to what happened on Thursday night, and the encounter with a criminal that cost me all the money in my pockets.
There was, happily and perhaps improbably, no mugging involved. Rather, this is another of my crazy hitchhiker stories.
I stopped to pick up a young man along the main drag through Auburn. He was thin and clean-shaven, with a military-style buzz cut, and soft-spoken. It was several hours after midnight, and as is usual in this part of the hinterlands, this meant that the visibly shivering guy had been waiting out in the freezing cold completely alone for quite a while. As you would expect, he was immensely grateful for the pick-up.
Making conversation, I asked him what he was doing out that late at night. "Oh," he replied casually, "I just got out on parole ..."
(It is a testament to either my life experience or my acting skills that I was able to continue the conversation normally at that point. I'd like to think that I kept a level expression, but to be honest, I'm not sure I quite pulled that off.)
He had family -- a mother -- in the area, but was trying to get his life straightened out so that he could return a humbled and cleaned-up prodigal son. And this meant that he had noplace to stay for the night. He'd tried just finding a corner to curl up in, but it was hovering in the low 40s outside, and he was too cold to sleep. He had a stash of extra clothes that he'd hidden in some bushes, but they were near his parole office across town, so he was hitching a ride to them. If he could just make it through the night, he'd talk with his parole officer and get something arranged for the next few weeks, but he'd probably have to panhandle for some bus fare and food money the next morning ...
When I dropped him off, I emptied my pocket of cash at him.
Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was lying about something to me. Quite an incredible story he had. For all I know, he might have just spun the entire thing out of whole cloth -- might have just been some random kid running away from home. But here's what I do know: Not even a fucking lunatic would hitch a ride across town in 40-degree weather at crazy o'clock (and, yes, I dropped him off near some bushes by the Bel Air shopping center) if they had ANY better alternative.
If he was simply trying to avoid the cost of a taxi ride, he would have given up long before I found him. And even if his entire story was bullshit, the $7 I insisted he take isn't enough to settle the balance of the miserable, shivery hours he spent out there.