We were driving home from Pennsylvania when the low gas indicator on my dashboard began flashing.
“We need gas,” I told my wife.
“How many miles are left in the tank?” she asked. Using a switch on the steering wheel, I called up the diagnostics on my car’s computer screen.
“Twenty,” I said.
“Think we can make it to Costco? They have the cheapest gas.” So, I asked my phone how far away the superstore was. “Seventeen miles,” it chimed.
“That’s cutting it awfully close,” I said.
“We can make it,” my wife replied. “When my car says ‘empty’ you can still go another ten or fifteen.”
My fingers tightened on the steering wheel. I hate running out of gas. The last time it happened it was twenty-five years ago. I was running out the door to take very attractive French girl a buddy had set me up with to a fancy restaurant but, because my car wouldn’t start, I had to walk to the nearest station to get a gallon of fuel. So, I called my date to tell her I was going to be late. Her reply? “Forget about the whole thing.” Boy, was I aggravated.
“You dodged a bullet,” the aforementioned buddy told me after I related the incident to him. “Think of it as a diagnostic moment. If she couldn’t deal with a small bump in the road, then she isn’t the kind of person you want to spend time with. That or she wasn’t really interested in you. Either way, you didn’t waste your money on her.” His words stung because the French girl had a body to die for but, despite my frustration, I knew he was right – but that didn’t stop me from kicking myself.
Now, as we passed gas station after gas station running on fumes towards Costco, I saw storm clouds billowing overhead and feared being stuck on the side of the road during a rainstorm with my dog, daughter, and sister-in-law in the back seat. With each passing mile, I felt nervous tension building in my trapezius muscles, threatening the good mood I was in – which would’ve been a shame. We’d all gone down to my parent’s old home to pack up some of their belongings and bring them to the nursing home where they now reside, and ended up having a very nice time – dinner at a lovely restaurant, playing board games at night on the enclosed porch, tooling around nearby towns the next morning, ducking into thrift shops, and having a nice brunch at an outdoor café. As I listened to my daughter and her aunt laughing as they sang songs in the back seat, I took a deep breath, held it for a count, and then exhaled slowly, knowing that the only thing that could ruin my contented buzz was me.
“Isn’t Costco closed now?” I said.
“Their gas station is still open an hour after the store closes,” my sister-in-law said, “We have plenty of time.” And we did. But it was a close run thing – and the line for gas was long.
“I’ve got to use the bathroom,” I said, after popping the gas tank cover. “Take over, Annie.”
“But the store’s closed,” she said.
“People are still walking out with carts. They’ll let me in.”
As I walked across the lot to the store, however, I saw a man pull into the gas line with a cup of what I thought was iced coffee rattling precariously on the roof of his car. A simple goof we’ve all done from time to time. So, being a nice person, I shouted, “Hey buddy!” and pointed to at his drink. He ignored me.
“Hey buddy,” I shouted again, getting closer. “Your drink!” The man rolled down his window.
“Why the fuck are you yelling at me?” he said, his face contorted into a rictus of anger. “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?”
After years working psych, my brain quickly processed all the information my senses presented me with. The man was about my age, thin, with buzz cut hair and wearing a t-shirt that had seen better days. His car was also old, its green painted abraded by years of sun and rusted in spots. But it was the man’s energy that put me on guard, like I’d encountered a man working on his very last nerve.
My very first thought, upon being the recipient of such rage, was to pull the guy out of his car window by his scrawny neck and deliver a judicious beating in front of all the motorists waiting to fill their tanks. Luckily, I’m well acquainted with my reptilian brain’s less than savory impulses and let the murderous thought pass in and out of my mind’s eye – but now I was pissed.
What I should have probably done was walk on by and let the man’s coffee spill all over his dirty windshield but, as I stared at the man in shock, I noticed that he’d shrunk lower into his seat. “My goodness,” I thought to myself. “This man is scared of me.” Moi? I’m just trying to help him. Then I had a vision of this guy blowing me away. You see, my state recently started to let people carry concealed firearms and, let’s face it, people have shot each each other over simple misunderstandings in parking lots before. What a way to go – over a cup of coffee.
Now wary myself, I pointed to his forgotten cup. “You left your coffee on top of your car,” I said evenly.
“My mango drink!” the man shrieked, hopping out of his car. Of course, no thank you was forthcoming but even if it had been, his words would’ve been lost since I was rapidly egressing the area. “Relax, pal,” I tossed over my shoulder.
When I got to Costco, I asked the person manning the door if I could use their bathroom. “Sure,” the lady said but, as I walked towards the restroom, I heard people shouting.
“He just wants to use the bathroom.” I heard the greeter yell. “He’s not staying.” When Costco closes, they close; but I didn’t blame the workers – exhausted after a busy day dealing with customers stuffing their carts with mega sized packs of toilet paper – from thinking I was just another entitled patron trying to slip in last minute. But, seconds after coming off my parking lot showdown, their aggravation further deepened my now fully established bad mood. Relieving myself at the urinal, I muttered “Last time I try and help anybody. That dumb motherfucker.” Then, after zipping up, I walked out of the store, thanked the greeter, and made my way to the gas line. Sure enough, Mango Man’s heap was right behind my car.
Taking a deep breath, I realized Mango Man, in that unguarded instant, had probably given me a glimpse into his soul. It was, as my buddy once called it, a diagnostic moment. If this dude got so worked up something this small – catastrophizing a situation without full possession the facts – he probably did that with other people too. Why? I have no idea. Judging from his beaten up car, maybe he was poor and burning with resentment over the card’s life dealt him. Or, perhaps, he was a shell shocked veteran or former cop who’d been traumatized into looking for danger at every turn. Maybe he was paranoid. I’ll never know, but I did know one thing – the only one in charge of my behavior was me.
Sliding past the man’s window, he looked at me and I looked at him. Withering under my baleful gaze, he seemed to collapse on himself in shame. “Thanks again, buddy,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I breezily replied. Then I got into my car.
“What’s the matter?” my wife said, seeing the expression on my face. I told her what happened, including my momentary desire to turn Mango Man him into a slushie.
“Daddy!” my daughter said. “You wouldn’t do such a bad thing.”
“No honey” I said. “But sometimes, when you try and help people, they act like jerks. It’s okay to get angry, but the trick is not to become a jerk yourself.”
“Whaddya need” the gas station attendant said, appearing at my window.
“Fill her up, please.”
“Oh, let me get it,” I said, fumbling for my wallet. Then my sister-in-law handed the attendant her credit card. “It’s on me,” she said.
“That’s okay. I’ve got it.”
“No, you and Annie paid for dinner and breakfast. It’s my treat.”
Feeling a bit humbled, I realized I was seeing my sister-in-law’s character in a diagnostic moment too – which made me glad that, in those unguarded seconds, I had taken the high road with Mango Man. Driving away with a full tank of gas and all my car’s indicators in the green, I began to feel some of my bliss from earlier returning and offered a silent thanksgiving to the angels of my better nature. Most of the time, they’ve managed to rescue me from that reptilian demon always peering out from within my soul. Hopefully I’ll pass the next diagnostic test life throws at me.
But then again, I’m not perfect either.