In my second year of law school, me and my best friends from Chapel Hill decided that it would be really cool to get together on The Hill for a weekend and hang out again like we used to. So I drove down from Williamsburg on a Friday, we all met up, and we launched into one of those booze-soaked weekends like we used to do back in the day. ("Back in the day," back then, meaning two years ago).
At the end of the weekend, Sunday afternoon, it was time for us all to go our separate ways and drive home. But I just wasn’t up for that. I couldn’t see myself driving the five hours or so back to Williamsburg. Not because I was drunk, mind you, just because I was exhausted. The weekend had taken its toll, and I was pretty sure that five hours of driving was beyond me. But I didn’t want to spring for a hotel.
Then I recalled: "Hey! Debra’s going to medical school here!"
Debra was an ex-girlfriend, and one of the true loves of my life. I had met her way back in First Grade and we had been really close friends ever since. Then, when I got back home after spending my freshman year at the University of Miami, we had started dating. "Hot damn!" I thought at the time, "this is it, this is love!" And, seriously . . . how could it not be love? I was dating this person, one of my closest friends, and now I got to sleep with her! Awesome!
In the end, I would transfer from Miami to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (the next year I transferred to Chapel Hill) just so I could be close to Debra, who was going to school at Davidson. And, in the end, we would break up and I would realize that I had made a really, really big mistake.
(To this day, I can recall staring out of my dorm window on the morning of the first day of class, second semester. It was the beginning of 1988. I was living in a room on the top floor of the dorm farthest away from campus. The room was a double, but my roommate had dropped out and gone home after discovering that he had fathered a child with his High School girlfriend, so I had the place to myself.
(I remember listening to my coffee percolator perk, while I stood in my underwear and looked at 3 feet of snow on the ground, snow that I would have to wander through in about an hour to attend my first, early morning class. And I remember thinking to myself: "Y’know . . . one year ago, you were living in a dorm in Miami. When the window was open, you could smell salt, and heat, and sap. You sometimes walked to class barefoot. You had a frat, and friends, and a beautiful girlfriend. And you gave all of that up for another girl, and now you don’t have her either.
("You screwed up really big, somewhere."
(It was a Life Lesson.)
Anyway . . . . Debra and I hadn’t spoken for a coupla years, but I knew she was in Med School and I found her in the student directory. I got lucky, and she answered the phone when I called.
"Hey, Debra, it’s Sean, how’re ya?" I proceeded to tell her that I was in town, at the end of a Chapel Hill reunion, and that I didn’t feel like driving back to Williamsburg and could I crash at her place for the evening? Now, like I said, we hadn’t spoken for a coupla years and I am sure I wouldn’t have tried pulling this with any other ex-girlfriend, but Debra and I had known each other since 1st Grade so that made some difference.
I could tell, over the phone, that Debra didn’t think this was a good idea, but I could also hear, over the phone, that she couldn’t figure out a good way to tell me ‘no.’ To her credit, she acquiesced with a maximum of grace to what was really an outrageous imposition, and – in exchange – I picked her up and took her out to dinner, on me. We went to The Flying Burrito and caught each other up on what we had been doing for the past coupla years. Then we went back to her place where she went to sleep and I dragged a cushion off of this large, circular wicker chair she had and I slept on that, on the floor.
(Oh, yeah . . . probably should have mentioned that when I said I called Debra up for a place to crash, that really was all I was looking for. I had no intention of trying to sleep with her, this wasn’t some clever ruse to get laid, so . . . y’know . . . not that great a story.)* * *
Debra was up around 5:00 the next morning, getting ready for an early class and stepping over me wearing nothing but a towel. (Okay . . . kind of that kind of story, ‘cause that’s still kind of a nice memory). She let herself out around 6:30, and I snoozed until 9:00. Then I got up, showered, helped myself to some of her breakfast cereal, and let myself out of her apartment, locking the door behind me.
Puddling into my car, driving out of town, I noticed that I was low on gas. But now that I was finally getting myself out of Dodge and back to Williamsburg, I was disinclined to stop immediately. "Screw it," I thought, "I’ll wait until I’m on the highway and then I’ll pull into a gas station somewhere."
But, in fact, I did not do that. Instead, once I hit the highway, I got lost in the sort of trance state I can sometimes slip into when driving. Listening to the radio, pointing the car’s hood straight down the road, and rolling across the landscape watching the Autumn morning rise about me . . . I completely forgot about the gas. Until the car reminded me.
I had actually made it about 100 miles from Chapel Hill when suddenly my engine started to sputter and the car started coasting to a halt. "Shit!" I yelled, remembering suddenly that I probably needed gas. Sure enough, the needle said that I was empty . . . beyond empty. "Shit!" I yelled again, superfluously. Glancing in my rearview mirror to make sure that I wasn’t about to get rear-ended, I guided the car off to the highway’s shoulder.
Shit! Shit Shit Shit Shit Shit!!. My car is now pulled off on the shoulder of a major highway, and I have no way to move it. This was back before the advent of cell phones (well, before the advent of cell phones owned by 23 year olds), so I had no one to call. So it looked like I was walking.
As it turned out, I got a little lucky with respect to where my car ran out of gas. I had no idea how far ahead the next exit ramp was (the last one was at least 10 miles behind me), but this wasn’t a great place to live, which meant that the people who were unfortunate enough to live here lived in places that butted up right next to the highway. From my car, there was a ditch, and beyond the ditch was a long wire fence, and behind the long wire fence were a series of back yards. They were large backyards, to be sure, and the houses that each yard belonged to were a distance away from the highway (the front yards were the size of postage stamps), but – still – it isn’t where anybody would want to live. People don’t tend to live next to a highway unless they have to.
So, I jumped the ditch and started walking along the wire fence, trying to figure out a good place to jump over and ask for assistance. After a little while, I came to a house that had a carport and had blues music blaring out of speakers that I could hear from the house’s open doors. So, obviously, someone was home. I figured this was a good place to try and find some help, and jumped the fence.
I walked across these people’s large backyard, and I walked slowly and kept my hands spread wide and my palms open. I had no idea who these people were or what they were like, but I certainly wanted to present the least threatening aspect I could. I am not here to rob you, even though I am trespassing on your property.
When I got to the carport, I found a large, older black lady seated in a folding chair listening to the blues music. When she saw me her eyes got wide and her mouth opened, and I immediately spread my hands even wider and said, before she could exclaim, "Excuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to have to intrude on you. But, y’see, my car – " me, pointing toward the highway "has run out of gas. If you have a small gas can around here, I’d like to pay you for it so that I can fuel up and be on my way. Again, please excuse me for having walked through your yard."
The little (very little) speech may have soothed her, because about half-way through it she shifted from startlement to a look that may have been sympathy. "Bob!" she yelled, "Bob! Get on out here!"
I had no idea what this meant, at the time, and was wondering if Bob was being summoned to kick my ass. But then Bob showed up, a guy about 30 years old – which, now, is young, but, back then, was old to me – and the woman said, "Bob, this young man has run out of gas. Sir, we don’t have any gas here, but Bob’ll be glad to take you to the gas station so you can get some."
Bob and I got into his truck, with an empty billy can of gas, and Bob drove me to the gas station where I got about two gallons of the stuff. Then Bob took me back to my car, still stranded on the shoulder of the highway, and watched me pour the stuff into the tank. Then Bob stayed and waited to make sure I could get the car started again, so that I could limp my way back to the gas station and fill it up properly. After I got the car started, I thanked Bob profusely, and insisted on giving him some money – not because it was needed, but just because I wanted to make some kind of tangible gift to thank him and his mother for their kindness, and it was the only thing I had to give.
Then I limped to the station, filled the car, and drove the rest of the way to Williamsburg.* * *
Years went by. Time passes, as it does. I moved to Miami, worked, got sick of it, moved back home to North Carolina.
A couple of years ago, I was driving back from Jacksonville to my home in Emerald Isle. I was cutting from Highway 17 to Highway 58, taking the Swansboro-Belgrade extension, that little two-lane blacktop that only people who live here know about. Back then, I was still tooling around in that little two-seater BMW roadster I used to have. The sun was bright, the sky was warm, my top was down and the music was great. I was loving the day, and was looking forward to opening the car up on a twisting country road that never had any radar cops on it.
Coming around a bend, I saw a car pulled up off of the road. About a half-mile later, I saw a young black man walking along the way, toting a gas can. I passed him (I was going too fast to stop) and as I passed him I immediately knew exactly what had happened. The guy had run out of gas and was walking the next two miles to the convenience store to fill up his billy can. Then he would have to walk the two miles back to his car, and he’d be able to get his car moving again.
Fuck that, I thought. I got to the convenience store, pulled a U-turn, drove back and then pulled a U-turn again. "You going to the convenience store?" I asked the guy. He said, yes. "Hop in, I’ll give you a lift." The guy got in and I drove him to the store. After he had filled up his can, I drove him back to his car. I watched as he got the gas into the car and had started it up and then I asked him, "Are you okay, now?" He said he was and I said "Okay," and took off back down the road, listening to my music and loving my day. It was 15 minutes out of my time, and I felt good about having helped somebody.* * *
But . . . as I drove down the road, I thought about what I had just done, and it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t really all that neat. See, I knew exactly what I was doing when I made the decision to go back and help that guy . . . I was helping out a black man, because a black man had once helped me out.
And, the thing is . . . . I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing if the guy walking down the road had been a white guy. I had really been enjoying my day when I passed that guy, and I have a sneaking suspicion that – if it had been another white dude – I’m enough of an asshole to have blazed on past him thinking to myself Sucks to be you, dude! But, because a black man had once helped me out in my hour of similar need, when I saw a black man in these straits I wanted to help too.
And that’s kind of fucked up. I don’t think of myself as a racist, but – obviously – somewhere back there I drew a line between black people and white people. So when a black person helps me, I think "a black person helped me." I don’t think Hey, that guy helped me, I should return the favor, instead I think Hey, a black guy helped me, I should help a black guy.
That’s pretty fucked up.