Fixing a flat

When was the last time I inconvenienced myself to help someone else? Not counting my kids, of course, since that is basically the job description for motherhood. I mean for a stranger. And I don’t mean smiling at people, holding doors, or offering directions. I mean hitting the mute button on my “I’m too busy” soundtrack and give help to a stranger. It’s been a long time.

Yesterday afternoon was a carefully constructed-out-of-toothpicks-and-scotch-tape contraption of carpools and handoffs. It was all holding firm until Dex discovered at 1:55 that his 2:00 pm meeting was not one mile away, but actually 15 minutes away via the Garden State Parkway. So I dropped whatever I was doing (trying to write this blog? Brainlessly browsing Jcrew.com? Hard to say), zoomed over, threw his bike in the back, and drove him there. I left him in Kenilworth, New Jersey, with a ride home and turned the minivan around to head back up the Parkway in time to get Julius to the orthodontist and then take Naomi to the first day of her fancy new art class that I paid too much money for and is too far away but I’ve always dreamed of having an artistic child and instead I have two mathy jocks. Then when all that’s done, my reward will be high school back-to-school night.

As I turned onto the Garden State Parkway, I noticed the car was crazy wobbly. I pulled over to the shoulder to look at the outside of the car. I have a goddamn motherfucking flat tire. The slew of invective that shot from my mouth would have overflowed my daughter’s curse jar (aka her college fund).

First I call Jeff, since these things always immediately become his problem and usually somehow his fault. He tells me to call AAA. I don’t have the card. He prepares to give me the number. I don’t have a pen. He texts it. I call. They tell me I’m not on the account and if Jeff is not there in the car, they won’t come. I call back Jeff. This is clearly now his problem AND his fault, so at least all is not lost. At least I have a tasty snack of righteous indignation.

AAA has a mercifully quick process to put me on the account, so in a few minutes I’m back on the line with them. Now they say they can’t come because I’m on the Garden State Parkway so only the Garden State Parkway roadside assistance service can help me. More money for the curse jar. She patches me to the Garden State Parkway roadside assistance line. They accidentally hang up on me. My brain is overheating.

I call AAA again, go through their automated system again, explain my situation again, and she starts to patch me to Garden State Parkway roadside assistance. They answer and don’t hang up on me; they say they’ll send someone soon. I commence waiting. I pass the time by frantically trying to arrange last-second rides for Naomi to art and Julius to the orthodontist. I land a ride for Naomi (I have amazing, generous friends), and convince Julius to bike to his appointment.

Ok, all will work out, as long as I get the tire fixed. I’m trying to not completely lose my shit, trying not to be the cosseted suburban mom who treats any variation in the routine as cause for a mental breakdown. I try to just focus on all that’s just fine with life. Did I mention my ankle is sprained?

I sit on the back of my open tailgate, play Brandi Carlile on my earbuds, and wait. Then a bus rolls down the on-ramp and the driver pulls open the door as he approaches me, smiles, and asks if everything is OK. I smile back and tell him I wish I could catch a ride on his bus but need to wait with my car. He offers to fix my flat tire.

I thank him but say it’s fine, I’m waiting for a tow truck, and he says “Well, how long have you been waiting? I can do it right now. C’mon.” And then he pulls his empty off-duty bus over, in front of my car.

He changed that flat tire as deftly as I might braid my daughter’s hair. We talked about his family, how he used to work at his older brother’s car repair shop, how he is one of eight kids, and his entire family is out on Long Island, in Shirley, and I say I know it because it isn’t too far from Westhampton where I grew up going to visit my grandparents. He told me about his infant son Sean, and how much Sean loves to be held by his dad. I never learned his name; he never asked for mine.

When he was finished, I tried to press some cash into his hands, but he shook his head. “That’s not why I did this,” he said. I begged him to take it because I was so grateful for his help; I said “buy Sean a gift!” I insisted, then rolled the money up and stuck it in the waistcoat pocket. He slipped it back into the open window of my car, smiled, and said goodbye.

Initially, the flat tire was awful, a day ruiner, a massive cause for stress and irritation. I was mad to be in Kenilworth, NJ, mad that so many people’s days depend on me, mad at the world in general. But then that bus driver turned it upside down. Instead of me thinking of how the flat tire shot my day to hell, I marveled at how his generosity was a gift I could have only received because of that flat. I drove home thinking about this bus driver—whose bills are probably sometimes late, whose home is probably not fancy or spacious, who doesn’t have much power in the grand scheme of things—how he is a genuinely great person. No one will ever vote for him, or tweet about him, or photograph him eating in a cafe on a Soho sidewalk, or read his Op-Ed in the newspaper. But his kindness was more powerful than anything I’ve read or heard. He makes me want to see if I can exert that same kind of power on someone else.