Friday, April 4, 2014

Suppertime at the Almost There

This is a story of good people and of living an unconnected life. It's not a fairy tale.

On my way back from the northern neck yesterday, my car died as I was cruising along at 60 mph. Despite losing power steering, I wrestled the car off the road and into the parking lot of the Almost There diner.

Except I wasn't almost there, I was barely fifteen miles west of Tappahannock.

I admit I'm a useless female when it comes to car trouble, so I climbed over the good-sized log separating the diner parking lot from that of the Watts and Sons Supermarket to seek manly advice.

A man was finishing up gassing his car and I asked him if he lived around there, apparently an atypical question in those parts because he wanted to know why I was asking.

After checking to make sure I had gas (I'm not that bird-brained, I assured him), he offered to drive up to a nearby garage and see if he could get someone to come down and look at the old girl.

He was back in a flash to report that they'd left for the day. But instead of washing his hands of me, he told me to pop the hood so he could take a look.

Within ten minutes, another man showed up, this one shorter than me, much older and quite soft-spoken. He looked under the hood and the two conferred, occasionally asking me to try the ignition again.

The car made noises like it was about to start, but never quite caught.At this point, I realize I have stumbled into best case scenario for a woman stranded on the side of the road so I introduce myself. They're hesitant to shake my proffered hand because theirs are dirty but I insist because their hands are dirty because of me.

Russell and Mr. Young, my two johnny-on-the-spots, begin ruling things out. Plenty of oil. Fuel pump tested and working. No loose hoses.

I learn from Russell that Mr. Young was a car mechanic his whole life. Now retired, his son Wayne runs the shop and he calls him about towing my car to his garage.

Wayne can't come get it tonight because he already has a car on his hitch to be delivered in the morning and taking it off tonight only to put it back on tomorrow is silly.

Mr. Young asks me if I want to write down my contact info and give him the key and he'll see that Wayne gets it. "You're dealing with good people here," he says, leaning in to me so I can hear him and provides Wayne's phone number.

I am about to hand my car key to a stranger and hope I see it again. Yes, I am.

Russell says he'll drive me back to Richmond after he calls headquarters to alert them where he is.

I hear him explaining about the stranded lady and the impending drive and his ETA, then his voice drops and I hear, "Keep my dinner warm, will you, sweetie?"

With his wife's blessing, he's good to go and willing to do it, so I write down my info and give Mr. Young my key, thanking him for his help.

One last duty - Russell goes in to the Almost There Diner to let the owner know that my car will sit there all night. He comes out beaming, saying she's fine with that.

Crawling up into Russell's big green Ford truck, I feel incredibly lucky that this man is putting off eating to drive a stranger to Richmond.

On the drive back, we talk about everything - how he worked in a textile plant until the owner got old and sold all the equipment to the Indonesians, how he now drives a cement truck, how his daughter lives off Laburnum Avenue and works in Richmond as an occupational therapist, how he's been asthmatic all his life.

Learning that he lives in the same area where he was born, I ask if he's from a big family. "Not really, no, there was six of us," he says. And here I was about to say I do come from a big family...and there are six of us.

Once in the city, he marvels at the age and  architecture of Jackson Ward and when I hop down and thank him profusely for his kindness, tells me that we all need to be kinder to one another.

After not hearing anything this morning, I tried calling the number for Wayne and get a recording saying that the mailbox is full.


I try later and Wayne answers, assuring me that he's just started on my car and will call me when he finishes.

A few hours later, he calls as promised and says the car is good to go. I get detailed directions, but they're the kind given by someone who knows the area well. No street names or route numbers, just landmarks, like the Chevy dealer and the Sunshine market.

I enlist a friend to drive me out there and once we turn off Route 360, feel like we are deep in the country, a place of singlewides, the greenest of fields and garages bigger than the houses they're next to.

After the final right hand curve to the end of the road, we find Wayne's garage with my car sitting alongside some that clearly haven't been driven in decades.

Mr. Young is standing out front and waves to me with the same placid smile that reassured me yesterday.

Inside the dark, overly full and bathroom-less (I know because I asked) garage, I meet Wayne, a friendly and professional man who managed a Heilig Meyers furniture store on Broad Street for 17 years before coming back to take over his father's garage.

Telling him what an angel his father was for me yesterday, he laughed and said, "That's my Pop. That's just his way."

I sit down and he admits that while he misses the salary, you can't beat being your own boss like he is now. "Over 17 years, I only got three Saturdays off," he says, wincing. "You can't put a price on having your own schedule." When he asks what I do, he's tickled to find that we are kindred souls when it comes to work and life.

When I finally get around to asking about my car and if I somehow caused the problem, he's quick to reassure me.

"No, no, Karen. It's the damnedest thing, never saw the like before. I went to look at the distributor cap and the screws fell right out. Nissan puts those screws in tight and you have to put some muscle behind it to get them off. How they got loose, I can't imagine. That's probably why your car shut off, to protect itself."

Well, how about that? It wasn't just Russell and Mr. Young looking out for me, it was my car, too.

We went outside and I took Mr. Young's hands to thank him again for saving the day before climbing back into my car and returning to civilization.

Whenever I tell people that I don't have a cell phone, almost all of them point out that I should have one for emergencies. What if your car breaks down on the side of the road, I've heard far too many times to count.

What happens? I meet the nicest people and am reminded again that we didn't always have instant solutions to solving life's problems. I've noticed that things always seems to work out one way or another.

At least for me and I know how lucky that makes me.

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