Sunday, February 20, 2011

The hitchhiker's guide to my neuroses (part four)

(go here for parts one, two and three)

Last month a freak storm blew through town on E's birthday. It began in the early afternoon as I ran a few errands:

and continued throughout the afternoon. The government closed two hours early, as did every other civic institution. I gathered the kids from school far earlier than their regular time and we began the blizzardy drive home.

The sky was tinted a strange green as the thick clouds thundersnowed a heavy, slushy mess all over town. It took us about 45 minutes to get to the halfway point in our regular commute, which should normally take less than 20 minutes. Then we made a (non-)decision. We turned left instead of continuing home, as we had previously decided earlier in the week. We headed into a more congested area, towards E's favorite restaurant. Snow or no snow, she deserved her birthday dinner. My car has all-wheel drive, and I grew up in this stuff. What could go wrong?

Right?

My own driving skills never failed me, but many other peoples' did. Our side of the street was three lanes wide but stalled cars staggered across it had us leapfrogging single-file, along with Metro buses and all the other early-dismissed drivers of the DC area. We needed to go about five miles. It took us over an hour. Cars were spinning out and sloshing sideways and colliding left and right. The kids in the backseat were angelic. G slept and the girls sang songs. But still, I knew they had to be hungry. I knew the restaurant was still some distance away.

The blinking beacons of hazard lights multiplied and the sky grew darker and the snow continued to fall. We were driving at a pace so slow that the needle from the speedometer rarely lifted its lazy arm.

On my left a man appeared seemingly from nowhere. He had a package in his arms. His glasses were dripping and his jeans were wet to above his knees and he called in an Asian accent, "can you give me a ride?"

Not since that day when I was sixteen have I given a hitchhiker a lift. I had my three kids in the backseat. I can't tell you why, but a strong conviction overcame me and I surprised myself by gesturing: "get in."

And then I panicked, of course.

His bag smelled of Chinese take-out. He lifted it and said it was their dinner; he was trying to bring it home to his wife. His car was just hit by another driver who skidded, and neither of them could move their cars from the snowbank. He had called his wife to pick him up but she couldn't get their other car out of their parking lot. He only needed to go about two miles.

On foot, on that night, those two miles might have taken many hours. Not that it mattered: by the time I knew this much about him he was already buckled in my passenger seat.

I drove tensely and watched his movements in my periphery, believing in my conviction but simultaneously doubting it via every common-sense fear lesson ever ingrained in me. My instincts have a good track record. I've lived in New York City. I've traveled all over the world. I've never been mugged, or pickpocketed, or carjacked. I've never been a victim of random violence. I trusted that I had sized him up accurately as safe. Or: I've never been a victim of random violence because I've never made a vulnerable decision like this before?

He pulled out his cell phone and made a call in a language I don't know. The girls asked, what's he saying?  and why is he in our car? and why is he in Daddy's chair?  and what's his name? all while he spoke into his Blackberry. I kept saying to each question in turn, "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

The sky grew darker and the road surface grew thicker. He put his phone away and reached back into his pocket.

(the conclusion, tomorrow) Pin It