Always carry a car charger (for your phone)

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

–Blanche DuBois, Streetcar Named Desire

The above is absolutely not true of me, and if you know me at all you’re probably laughing just thinking about it. I don’t rely on strangers for anything. If the ugly truth must be told, I hardly rely on friends. I am in fact always (always) shocked when I bump into well-meaning, kind-hearted strangers. At some point between my third and fourth birthdays I came to the conclusion that human beings are a fickle species at best, wisely kept at a safe distance until they’ve passed the necessary vetting process. And even then, don’t pin too much hope on them.

So whenever I find I’ve run out my own resources and will have to turn to someone else for help–especially when I’m far from home and that someone else has to be someone I don’t know–I panic. Yes, this is a control issue, and could probably be helped with serious therapy. Don’t judge. We all have issues.

This long-winded self-focused introduction leads to a story. This year, I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Vermont, with a very dear friend. And because it’s been an adventurous sort of year, I decided I’d drive it by myself. Armed with her address and an iPhone squawking directions, I started off for the great White North about an hour later than I meant on Tuesday morning. Long about 3:00 I discovered why people own car chargers for their iPhones. Not to worry. I pulled off at a rest stop, plugged in, drank a Starbucks coffee and scribbled notes to myself for a story I’ve been working on, all the while doggedly fending off the advances of a heavy-set fellow with a thick African accent and very big yellow teeth who looked about 20 and kept trying to get me to admit that I was a student.

In case you didn’t know it, iPhones take a very long time to charge. I had to unplug it at about half battery life and just pray it all worked out. I did have the foresight to write down directions, just in case it died on me later. A very wise precaution, no?

Another thing you may not know: it gets dark a heckuva lot earlier up north than it does here in DC. By 4:30, as I rolled along somewhere in the upper regions of New York, it was pitch black. At about 6:30 the phone gave out again, and I thought with relief of the written directions lying next to me on the seat. I followed them with care, off the main highway and onto a dark, rural road that wound through hills and forests and I hardly know what else since it was so dark, until I came to my next turn. My next turn would have taken me onto yet another rural highway, which was supposed to lead eventually to a ferry. Yes, there was the road. Yes, there was a sign for the ferry…except–horrors!–this sign was covered by a garish orange sticker that read simply, “CLOSED.”

I pulled off the road and sat on the shoulder to think about things. I don’t own any maps. Stupid, yes, but I only think about them when I need them, and that’s never when I’m in a position to buy them. Even if I were able to a phone and call someone, I only have three phone numbers memorized: my family’s home number, which is no good since they’re in Hawaii; my grandmother–also no good, because she’d freak out; and my high school best friend’s parents’ number, which is ridiculous, because she hasn’t lived at home in eight years. So I’m useless without my electronics. So sue me.

I took stock of my surroundings. The nearest indications of civilization were a few dismal houses with rusted cars cluttered about the front driveways and tall grass in the ditches. I’d passed an exit with signs for gas stations about 25 miles earlier, though the idea of back-tracking after nearly 10 hours in the car made me want to kick something. And there might possibly have been a gas station or something close to the exit I’d just taken, but I couldn’t remember for sure. Realizing at last that sitting by the side of the road wouldn’t work as a long-term fix, I turned the car around and headed back the way I’d come.

Thank goodness, there was a MacDonald’s just off the exit, parked next to a little white church of the non-denominational variety and a locally owned feed-n-seed store that sported a sign boasting all sorts of great things for horses. I planned my entrance: Bring cord, bring book, walk in and order something (I’m not a huge fan of fast food, but we have to make do), find outlet, and sit down like you mean to be here.

It would’ve worked great, I’m sure. Except that this MacDonald’s had only one outlet, and that outlet happened to be surrounded by every teenage boy within a 15-mile radius of the place, and all those boys’ laptops. They were noisily engaged in some game. My heart sank.

I cleared my throat and put on my best professional face and asked the kid sweeping up near the cash register if there were any other outlets I could use. He gave me a sad look and sort of shrugged and said, “I think we only have that one that’s out there” (jerking his head back at the whooping crowd of boys).

I don’t cry in front of strangers. I’m happy to report I didn’t cry now, but I did sort of tear up, and holding up my dead phone and its charger I just lay it all out there. No more pretending everything’s okay, I thought. Just freakin’ ask for help.

“I’m lost,” I said, and I laughed with more volume than I intended. “I had directions, but the ferry is closed. I have to charge my phone. Please–“

He cut me off, looking a little desperate, and called for a manager.

People, this manager was amazing. I mean, I could have hugged her, and if I were a more demonstrable sort of person I probably would have. Not only did she find an extra outlet back behind the cash register where I could power up, but she even stood there behind the counter and wrote out a detailed set of directions for me to the next ferry, which was still open, and then assured me I could stay and wait for my phone as long as I needed. I was so grateful I bought french fries. I hate MacDonald’s french fries.

I suppose from her perspective it was a small act of kindness to give a little assistance to the frazzled city chick with her stupid dead phone who clearly doesn’t get out into the boonies much.

But from my end, her assistance was everything. Had I not found her I would probably have gotten back on the highway and ended up in Montreal (no joke) before I knew exactly where I was. I mean, assuming they’d have let me over the border. I didn’t have a passport with me either.

Which leads to two points that just seem very appropriate for this time of Christmas preparation:

1) Even the smallest actions can have real significance, even if we never see it ourselves. That woman (her name, by the way, was Jen, and if I ever figure out her store number MacDonald’s Corp. is going to hear about this) probably doesn’t even remember me. And here I’ve devoted basically a whole blog post to her.

2) We can’t do everything on our own. Sometimes you just have to let down your guard, trust the goodness of people, and ask for help.

You already knew both of those things, didn’t you? I did too. Only now I know them better, because I’ve experienced them.


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