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November 14, 2005

I pick up a hitchhiker

I started to pull over as soon as I saw her raise her hand and gesture at my car. A thirty-something woman in a long dress standing all alone on the side of Liberty Road five miles from Salem. I had to stop.

My first thought was that she had car trouble and needed help. But there wasn’t any car in sight. I rolled down the passenger side window.

“Oh, thank you for stopping,” she said. “I’ve been here for 45 minutes. I need a ride into town so I can catch a bus to go for a job interview.” “Hop in,” I told her. “No problem.”

As she settled into our Prius I realized that this was the first time I’d picked up a hitchhiker since the ‘60s when I drove a VW bug and was a lot wilder and crazier. Still, I couldn’t believe that no one else had stopped for this gentle-appearing soul.

“Even some of my neighbors passed me by,” she told me. “It must have been because you’re so scary looking,” I said with a smile. She was nicely dressed and clutching a purse. Not exactly the sort of woman that you should be afraid of stopping for on a rural road, especially on a sunny afternoon.

Her car was beyond repair. She and her boyfriend had tried to keep it going but now it had a major axle problem. They’d had to call a tow truck driver several times. She said that the driver finally said, “I’m tired of coming all the way out here. I’ll try to find you a cheap car from our repo lot.”

She was looking forward to picking up a $200 Ford Fiesta. She had put $100 down and needed to work for a week before she could pay the other $100. “They told me that it runs fine. It has a broken window, and you have to start it with a screwdriver, but I can live with that.”

She had left home three hours early to be sure she got to the job interview on time. It would have taken her twenty minutes to drive there. “It’s really more of a job orientation at T-Mobile. This is my third interview with them. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the job. It pays $10.20. That’s so much better than minimum wage. I’ll be so happy if I get the job.”

I could easily understand her words, but her voice had the intonation of a deaf person. Indeed, she told me that her new hearing aids were much better than her old ones. At a previous call center job she kept having to raise her hand for a supervisor because she couldn’t make out what a customer was saying. She had been born nearly deaf.

“Voc Rehab has been so helpful to me,” she said. “They gave me $100 to buy some new clothes. And I have a bus pass. They’ve been great.”

I asked her where she wanted to be dropped off. “There’s a bus stop by the Liberty Inn. I can get a bus to downtown from there, then get a transfer to where T-Mobile is. I have the address.”

It turned out that we had a mutual friend, Ted, who used to live in our Spring Lake Estates development. Ted is in assisted living now. She washes Ted’s clothes every Thursday evening for him. I gave her my name. She said she’d say hello to Ted for me. I left her at the bus stop.

I felt shitty. Horribly guilty. I needed to mail some stuff, then I was going to go to Best Buy to buy a router for the broadband satellite Internet connection that is going to be installed Wednesday. It’ll cost us $69 a month. That was close to what she had left to pay on her $200 car that she needed to get to her $10 an hour job.

After leaving the post office I drove back to the bus stop. She was still there. “How about if I give you a ride to T-Mobile?” I said. “I’ve got to go to Best Buy and I’ll be driving right by there.”

She was deeply appreciative. “The orientation starts at 3:30. I just looked at the schedule and my transfer leaves at 3:09.” “That’s cutting it close for a job interview,” I told her. “It’s better to get there too early than too late.”

We found the T-Mobile building. “Oh, look,” she said excitedly as we turned down the call center’s street. “There’s a covered bus stop with a seat. That’s so great!”

I kept thinking that this morning I had spent half an hour researching Honda generators on the Internet. We already have a generator to keep our well, refrigerator, and such running when the electricity goes out. I wanted a better one, something quieter, easier to start, with inverter technology so I could keep on using my computer and watch TV.

The sophisticated 7000 watt generator I was considering costs $3295. We could afford it. This woman was getting out of my car and thanking me profusely. She had almost nothing to her name. I hoped that she couldn’t see the guilt streaming out of my pores.

I thought about driving to an ATM, getting $100 out, and telling her that this was a loan so she could get her Ford Fiesta a week early and not have to hitchhike into town to catch a bus at 6 in the morning. But I sensed a lot of pride in her. It didn’t feel right. I kept my mouth shut.

“Wish me luck with getting the job,” she said. “Luck, I wish you,” I told her. She smiled and headed toward the T-Mobile front door. I drove off to Best Buy.

Thinking…I’m so glad I stopped to give her a ride…We’re so damn fortunate…There’s so many people out there struggling to just get by, whose dream is to purchase a $200 car that you start with a screwdriver, who spend hours waiting at bus stops to get to a $10 an hour job…We aren’t aware of them, we who zip by the bus stops in our 2004 Prius on the way to buy a broadband router for our $69 a month Internet connection that we’ll keep going with a $3295 Honda generator.

There’s something seriously wrong with our country. And me. I don’t know what to do about it. Or if I really even want to do anything about it. I want everything that I have now. Plus, more.

I’m selfish. I carefully titer my charitable impulses, giving just enough help to people less well off than me to keep my guilt at a level that won’t interfere with my own happiness. Once in a while, like this afternoon, the real world breaks through my protective progressive bubble. I get a glimpse of what it’s like, really like, for those at the bottom end of the income ladder.

It’s tough to see. On my way to Best Buy I shed a few tears.


Wow. Those are strong thoughts. I often have very similar thoughts when talking to folks in our rural area (like the follow we hire for $15 an hour to help us with yard work who lives in a camper) or when considering how generous to be with donations and time. Could we do more? Should we? How much difference could it make? Would it be a lasting difference? How would it be perceived?

It's too much for me to consider and it sounds like it's a bit overwhelming for you too. I hope you'll appreciate the good things you do. You make an effort not to be wasteful. You are charitable and generous. You took the time and made the risk to give this woman a ride today, which is almost certainly the most significant help she got today. You shared it with us.

I don't think it helps anything for you to feel bad about what you didn't or couldn't do and it couldn't hurt to appreciate yourself for the good things you've done. If everyone made the same effort as you do to minimize your negative impact and give a little back, don't you think things would be wonderful. There's no need to take on the entire responsibility. If you can do more, you'll do it, and appreciating your current efforts can only help.

Thanks sincerely for sharing this.

Great post.

I've been in both shoes-- having the money to buy what I want and (thanks to a health problem that put me out of work for some time) wishing I had $20 so I could have something to eat in the house.

I think people are so busy nowadays that they sometimes forget about those less fortunate. They have a house, cars, food on their table, and the money to buy "toys." As such, they forget what it's like to raid your daughter's piggy bank just to buy some food or gas so your husband can get to work.

I'm sure we all know someone who is less fortunate and could use a little help. Even those of us with a lot of pride would gladly accept a few bucks to help us buy some food between paychecks. Or to have enough to pay the rent so you don't get hit with a $50-150 late fee.

It's not that hard to help out those you know. You can find out what grocery stores they frequent and pick them up a gift card. Or a gift card to a gas station that's nearby. Or a pack of bus tickets for someone who is without a car.

I can't tell you how many times we ate sandwiches all week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because the church gave away free bread (or the store had it REAL cheap) and you could buy certain kinds of lunchmeat for cheap. Throw in a head of lettuce and some cheap cheese and you have your grain, vegetable, meat, and dairy. I'd have been so happy for a $20 gift certificate to Winco or Safeway so I could have gotten more than $5 worth of groceries for an entire week.

It's amazing how many people seem to turn a blind eye to friends and family members who are struggling to pay rent/mortgage and put food on the table due to things like job loss, health problems, etc.

There's lots of little things you can do that can really brighten up someone's day who really needs it.

I'm sure she really appreciated the car rides you gave her. Not only that, she likely arrived more refreshed and less stressed to her interview than she would have if she'd walked/ridden the bus there.

That was a wonderful, well written and emotional posting. I don't know what to do either. So many organizations that receive donations use so much for themselves. I would rather give on a one on one basis, which is what we do in St. Lucia. That way, I know our money goes directly to the needy.

There will always be those we are not helping enough or don't know how to help and that is true even if we are regularly contributing.

One thing we did some years back that has been helpful is start what we call a god fund. It's money that we regularly deposit in a saving account with the knowledge we cannot use it; but that when we hear of a need of someone, it's there. It's funny because you don't think of that money as yours at all anymore and it's gone out to do all kinds of things from helping with school tuitions, to moving, to paying for food and on and on. The best gifts are big because when a stranger (and often as we can, we give this anonymously) gives you a lot with no desire for being paid back (when we do give it with someone knowing, we say pass it on as you know it's amazing how many times people in need earlier were the kind to help others themselves and just tough times hit), you do feel blessed from the universe and it can really change a life path.

Once we have given it out, I don't even think of it again as it was never ours anyway. We try to be responsible where it goes as since it's not ours, it can't be just thrown out when it's not serving a real help. Sometimes you give someone money and it only helps them stay where they are. That's not real help. We do not have enough money to help someone forever. The best help is when they can move to a new level because of what you were a conduit for-- and that's what givers are-- conduits. When we miss our chances, we lost out as much as the one who needed it.

As we see with our government, throwing money at problems doesn't work; so it takes being open, aware, listening and then the money is there and easy to dispense.

Well written, dear friend. And the feelings are not unlike those I had during the Katrina and Rita efforts. Your kindness, thoughtfulness and actions will not be forgotten by your passenger. You eased her burden, even if only temporarily. But you helped when you had the opportunity.

Be thankful and appreciative for what you have and continue to look for opportunities to help.

How many millionaires rushed out to buy you a Mini Cooper convertible? ;)

Thank you for helping when the opportunity presented itself. You didn't do it to feel good about yourself, you did it to help someone. That's the mark of character. It's okay to appreciate what you have, and it's okay to stop in your tracks now and then, measure your "progress," and wonder why you made it this far and whether it's "right."

Keep doing good things. Not because it comes back, but because it's right. :)

A great story, but that woman is nowhere near the bottom of the economic ladder. Think about the so-called working poor who try to support families with jobs that pay $10.20/hour, or people who are addicted or mentally-ill, or who have no skills and are homeless, and cannot get or hold jobs.

You don't need money to help. Volunteer. Give an hour a week at a soup kitchen, or collect canned goods, or tutor in a literacy program; give your old clothes; drive poor people to the doctor. There are "brazillians" of things you can do to help.

You can help many people who need it.

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