The Kindness of Strangers

Davy Rothbart
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One night this past winter, I was racing along I-94 toward the Detroit airport when my van made a sound like a cannon-shot and broke down just a couple of miles from the terminal. I abandoned it on the shoulder and hitched a ride the rest of the way from a tow-truck driver who happened to be passing by. But I missed my flight anyway, and the next flight to Austin, Texas, wasn’t till the next morning.

I had to find a way back to my van. It was just a five-minute drive, but maybe a ninety-minute walk in the stinging cold. Cabbies scoffed at me and said, sorry, they were waiting for a “real” fare. AAA road service told me I had to meet their tow truck at the vehicle, they ­couldn’t scoop me up on the way. The airport cops shrugged and munched croissants.

Finally, a bit frantic, I started asking for a ride from random people waiting for their bags at baggage claim. To my disadvantage, I hadn’t shaved in a few days, I was wearing lime green pants with a long tear I’d repaired with staples, and my own luggage consisted only of an old backpack and a gym bag. Everyone edged ­cautiously away from me, as though I were one of those hustlers with complicated appeals for help you’ll come across in shady neighborhoods outside of baseball stadiums or floating around Greyhound stations late at night.
I might as well have been asking folks to help me smuggle tarantulas.

At last, a middle-aged businessman standing with a couple of buddies took pity and offered to drop me off at my van. His pals raised their eyebrows, flashed worried looks, and said, “See ya at the office tomorrow,” but in a tone that meant If you get robbed and killed, we’ll pay for your kid’s bar mitzvah.

On our way to the parking garage, my new friend im­mediately seemed to be second-guessing himself. He sank into a deep unease, squeezed between the grave danger he now imagined he was in and the fact that there was no way to exit the situation gracefully.

The last thing I wanted was for him to get cold feet and change his mind, so I started chatting him up. “Hey, man, thanks so much for the lift; you’re a real lifesaver,” I told him. “My name’s Davy, by the way.”

He shook my hand but didn’t offer his name. Instead, he said, “You don’t have a gun, do you?”

“I don’t have a gun,” I promised him. “I’m a writer and a public radio reporter. If we have a strong pledge drive next year, maybe they’ll finally issue us weapons.”

He kept asking me questions, trying to get a fix on me, but his nervousness was making me nervous, and my responses sounded overeager and desperate.

“Where were you flying to, the flight you missed?” he asked me.

“Austin, Texas,” I said. “It was a nonstop, but the flight I have to take in the morning stops in Memphis, and with a stop you double your takeoffs and landings, and that’s the most dangerous part of any flight, as you know.”

He gave a slight nod of agreement, though he  probably would’ve said that the most dangerous part of any flight is when the drifter with a backpack and a gym bag accosts you at baggage claim. His eyes flickered toward my gym bag, and he seemed to be wondering about its contents—methamphetamine tablets? Tarantulas? The wallets and jewelry of my night’s previous victims?

When we reached his car, he loaded his own suitcase into the trunk, then unlocked the driver’s door with a key rather than the clicker on his keychain, which would’ve perhaps unlocked my door, too. We hooked gazes across the hood. This, I realized, was the moment of truth: he really didn’t want to risk having his charred remains discovered months later in a Down­river marsh; I really didn’t want to risk having to beg for another ride. I tried to craft a look that conveyed Sad Puppy, but it came through more likely as Sad Car­jacker. After a taut couple of beats, the guy heaved a sigh and popped the locks.

As we left the garage and cruised down the airport service roads toward the freeway, the guy kept giving me jumpy glances. He was so certain that his life was in jeopardy and that I was about to rob him, I started thinking I really was about to rob him! I didn’t have an eleven-inch blade in my coat, crooked between my arm and my ribs, but he seemed to believe I did, so I tried my best to act the way someone would act who doesn’t have an eleven-inch blade in their coat, crooked be­tween their arm and their ribs, which made me feel all the more like I actually did. It was all very stressful and confusing. The car was thick with criminal tension.

“Where were you flying again?” he asked me.

“Austin, Texas,” I said. See? I’m not changing my story! I don’t have an eleven-inch blade in my coat, crooked between my arm and my ribs!

The guy took notice of the block M on my worn baseball cap. “Michigan fan?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I grew up in Ann Arbor, and I went to school there, too.”

“Really?” he said, smiling. “So did I. Class of ’82. I lived in East Quad.” He seemed to finally be coming around on me. Just one alum helping another alum out of a jam. “Where’d you live?” he asked me.

“I lived in East Quad, too.” It was actually true, but once I said it, I realized it sounded made-up.

“Really,” he said, suspicious again. “East Quad? What about after you moved out of the dorms?”

“I lived in a house on…” Oh no! The whole weird scene has caused my brain to seize up. “It was on that one street, you know, that little curvy one, kind of near Bell’s Pizza?” I grew a little frenzied. “I just can’t re­member the name of it! It’s just off that other street, you know, that one-way street, down by… by… we used to hang out on the roof…” I trailed off, hanging my head like a teenage felon at his sentencing.

There was no longer any doubt in the guy’s mind that his life was at stake. His hands clenched the steering wheel, and his mind seemed to be whirling with escape plans. He forced a little grin. “So… what’s your line of work?”

“Well, like I said, I’m kind of a writer, and I do stuff for public radio sometimes, and I also make a magazine called FOUND, which is all notes and letters that ­people find on the ground. Here, let me show you something.” I started reaching into my backpack to pull out a copy of the magazine, and the guy panicked and almost swerved off the freeway ramp. “Keep your hands where I can see ’em, please!” he cried. “Just put your backpack in the backseat!”

“OK! Look, I’m doing it!”

“The other bag, too. The gym bag. Put the gym bag in back!

“OK! Look, the gym bag’s going in the back! Now it’s in the back. Everything’s OK.”

A long, awkward, and troubled silence fell between us, like a pair of boxcar hobos after a drunken brawl that neither side has won. We sagged apart and stared out the windshield.

Finally, a minute later, I said, “There’s my van. Just past the bridge.”

“I see it.” He slowed down, but then grew anxious again, perhaps thinking that my crew was waiting in the shadows and that this was where he’d be ambushed. We coasted an extra quarter of a mile past the van before he pulled over.

I felt a little sad that I hadn’t been able to melt his distrust. “Listen,” I said, “I know you could’ve just ignored me back there at the airport like everyone else. Thanks for taking a chance on me.”

“No problem,” he said, watching the rearview ­mirror, still not quite feeling free from peril.

I climbed out of the car, and was lashed by an arctic wind. I tried to open the back doors to grab my stuff, but they were locked. The guy jammed on the gas and started peeling away. Holy double-cross! He’d been the real con-man all along! But then he stopped and the locks popped open again.

I trotted up to him, and grabbed my backpack and my gym bag.

“Be careful out there,” I said.

“Stay warm,” he said.

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