Yesterday, I stopped to get gas–just a few dollar’s worth, enough to last until I could fill up at a cheaper gas station across the park–when a man pulled up to the pump behind me. Other than noting that his car was orange, I didn’t pay much attention. I was too busy being annoyed that I had pay $4.39 per gallon. The total had just scrolled past twenty dollars when I heard someone say, “Excuse me, sister. I don’t know anyone here. Can you give me directions?” It was the man in the orange car. “I’m asking because you are my people.” I asked him where he was trying to go, expecting him to name a local landmark–Fisherman’s Wharf, China Town, the Ferry Building.
“Highway 5,” he said.
“Highway 5? As in the interstate?” I pictured the black strip of highway on the other side of Livermore’s rolling hills; the mind-numbing stretch of blacktop, forty miles beyond the city limits.
He nodded. “Yes, Highway 5.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I’m driving back home to Seattle.”
“Seattle.” I braced myself for the scam, the sad story about how his car had broken down and he just needed a few bucks for the repairs. Or better yet, how about money for a hot meal and a bus ticket? “You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m telling the truth,” he said. “I’m a cab driver, and these three guys hired me to drive them down here. They said they needed to get down here in a hurry. I drove all night. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. They slept in the backseat. When we got here they refused to pay the fare.”
I glanced at the orange car. Sure enough, it was a cab. Washington plates.
“We got into a big argument right on the street,” he continued. “I called the police. When they came, I told them what happened. They said the guys had to pay.”
“How much did you charge them?”
“I quoted two dollars per mile, but when I realized how far it was, I decided to give them a deal. I charged them eighteen hundred dollars.”
“And now you’re lost in San Francisco.”
He nodded again.
Years ago, when I was even more gullible than I am now, my car broke down on the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. It was close to midnight, and in my under-developed, twenty-something-year-old brain, I reasoned that I’d be better off walking along the shoulder as the cars whipped past, rather than waiting for the Automobile Club or the highway patrol to rescue me. I’d almost reached the offramp when a car pulled up and the driver offered me a ride. I remember looking at his face through the passenger-side window, and deciding he looked honest–whatever that meant. So I got in. He introduced himself as Yusef, and said he was from Yemen. As we drove around looking for an open gas station, he offered me diamonds. Not in exchange for anything. Just diamonds. As though he had bags of them stashed around his apartment and I’d be doing him a favor if I took a few off his hands. For a moment, I considered what a bag of diamonds could buy. Thank God I had enough sense to decline. Yusef didn’t seem to be offended. He just shrugged and kept driving until we found a gas station that could fix my car. It’s an outrageous story, I know, and thinking back, I can’t believe I was dumb enough to get in a stranger’s car . . . on the freeway . . . in the middle of the night. But I guess there are moments when you have to trust your gut, moments when the situation at hand is so odd, you don’t have any choice but to accept it as true. As I listened to the cab driver’s story, my gut told me he was telling the truth. Warrington, our friend, Victor, and I once drove from Los Angeles to Seattle on a spontaneous road trip. It was Christmas vacation and we had nothing better to do. We drove straight through–twenty-three hours–each taking three-hour shifts. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
I looked at the cab driver. He had an honest face. And he hadn’t asked for a dime.
I offered to draw him a map.
The thing was, we were on the northwest side of the city. I soon realized that before I could draw him a map of how get to Highway 5, I’d have to draw him a map of how to get out of San Francisco. There was no straightfoward, easy way to get from where we were to where he needed to be. Three badly-drawn maps later, I said, “Forget it. Just follow me. I’ll lead you to the freeway.”
“I’m Rahneer,” he said. “I’m from Ethiopia.”
“Natalie,” I said. “From here.”
And that was that. He followed me through the city, through Japan Town, and Chinatown, and the financial district. As we approached the Bay Bridge onramp, I pulled over.
“Good luck,” I said. “Safe travels. And don’t forget to sleep if you get tired.”
He asked for my phone number, so he could call for directions in case he got lost. I asked for his, just in case I thought of something he might need to know for his journey. I waited till his cab merged back into the flow of post-Giant’s game traffic.
And then, with a wave, he was gone.