My mom always told me to never get into the car with strangers, but honestly, the older I’ve gotten, I’ve always had a habit of bending the rules that my mom set forth for me way back when. I have a love for strangers, especially weird ones. Luckily I never had too much of an affinity for candy, otherwise I would have ended up in the wrong Astrovan a long time ago, and then I would have ended up being the Elizabeth Smart of the East Tennessee community. Regardless, I’ve managed to make it twenty-two years based on the kindness of strangers, and it’s honestly a mystery as to how I have managed to not be murdered.
I guess it probably dials back to the fact that I love people, no matter who they are because everyone has an interesting story to tell. I’ve never really cared what someone looked like or how dangerous they looked… I always cared more about how they got there and if they were willing to tell me about it. I don’t have many regrets in life, but one of the moments that stands out to me most distinctly was during my sophomore year of college. My parents had asked me to meet them at a car dealership because my mom was getting a new car (little did I know, we were actually trading in my clunker Jeep [may he rest in peace] for a car for me). As I turned off the interstate, there was an old man with a Duck Dynasty type beard walking down the road with his thumb out. I was immediately stopped at a red light because the Knoxville infrastructure somehow legitimized putting a stoplight on the off ramp from I-40 to Emory Road. Even from a distance, we locked eyes for just a moment. I smiled and nodded at him, and he returned the favor. I’m sure most people would have summed it up as just another vagrant looking for money or a free ride, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to go back and pick him up. From then on out, I had a stronger itch than ever to collect strangers on the road and put them in my car, kind of like a collection of hitchhikers.
So, after a couple years of waiting, I got my opportunity. The evening after my friend Dixie took me on one of the most painful hikes I’ve ever been on, we were completely exhausted on the way back toward campus. As we were navigating the Smoky Mountains tourist traffic, we came upon a young man with a giant pack on his back loaded down with all sorts of goodies hanging off of it. I looked at Dixie and asked if we go pick him up, as if he were some kind of stray kitten lost on the side of the road. Either way, I saw it as an opportunity because first and foremost, we had an opportunity to help another human being… and on the off chance that he was a crazed lunatic, I finally had an opportunity to test my self-protective skills with the metal pipe I carry in my car. We took about a mile deliberating the options before I made the executive decision to go pick him up.
He told us about hiking the Appalachian Trail and how his trail name was Leaf, as his walking stick was stabbing me in the neck from the backseat. He was asking us questions about our lives, but not in the simple “everybody talks like this” kind of way, but more like if Ralph Waldo Emerson hopped in your backseat after a couple weeks alone in the woods. We ended up letting Leaf out of the car about two thirds a mile down the road, so we weren’t actually that helpful at all in getting him where he was going. I had (kind of) helped a hitch hiker though, and I didn’t get stabbed, so I considered an overarching victory.
Since then, I hadn’t found myself in a vehicle with someone I didn’t know up until just recently. DC is a bustling place where no one ever really knows each other because people move in and out so quickly that by the time you’ve introduced yourself, they’re closing the door on a UHaul. But this week at work, I was asked to take a taxi from our office across town to deliver some materials to a client. I tried not to show my nervousness, but I didn’t have any knowledge as to how you make this work. I mean, I had a couple of movie references, but most of the time, nothing in real life is like the movies. My plan of action was to go to the edge of the street and hold out my hand, but if they didn’t seem to be slowing down, I would leap onto the hood until they came to a red light, then hop off and quickly dive in the back door. Luckily, the first one I saw stopped.
The ride was fantastic: a nice greeting once I got in, simple address request, light classical music on the way there. I was exhausted this week, so I took the twenty minute ride to collect my thoughts and just reflect on the week. My mind hasn’t stopped lately, as I’ve been trying to get a handle on all of my 20-something thoughts. I’ve been thinking about how I want to approach my career and finals, and how being single during Christmastime is a total buzzkill. I wondered if I’d ever get married, and then I wondered what shade of leather I would make all the furniture in my “man room,” when I was a fifty year old bachelor. It was so great that I was even looking forward to the ride back. But when I got in the taxi on the way back, there was no classical music. I didn’t have time to begin my in depth life-changing contemplations/start planning the interior decorating for my bachelor pad because the taxi driver was too busy telling me how to hail a taxi properly. Apparently what I did wasn’t hailing a taxi, as much as it was waving at cars going by, as if I knew the driver or if it was a parade. I knew it was going to be a very long taxi ride back.
About two minutes into the drive, he asked me if I smoked. Nervous, I answered, Yeah, I’m sorry because, you know, I’m obligated to apologize for each of my life decisions. He told me, Oh, it’s fine. It’s your body and your decision… at first, I thought that was it, which would have been a refreshing turn of events, but he followed up with, you know that smoking will kill you, right? which was a hard sentence to comprehend through his Dominican accent. It makes you die a slow painful death. That’s why you’ve coughed so much since you’ve gotten in. It’s already happening. I don’t have any addictions in the world, except for women. I’m 58 years old, and I sleep with too many women. It wouldn’t be a problem if I weren’t married. Cue his extremely loud laughter and my nervous hiccups in the back. It all made sense to me: my mom didn’t warn against me riding in the car with strangers because it was dangerous… she warned against it because people are really friggin’ weird and kind of annoying sometimes. He went on to ask me if I had a girlfriend, and then told me that if I didn’t get on it soon, I was going to be 50 looking around… wondering why I was still alone. I took his advice pretty hard until I reminded myself that he’s married and sleeps around with all kinds of people. Guessing that I had become uncomfortable, due to my nervous texting and constant shifting closer to the door, he told me that he would leave me alone.
I felt bad because as weird as the conversation was, I felt like my body language was saying, Hey Dominican cab driver. I don’t like your or your extramarital affairs. Stop talking, when it reality, all I was trying to say was, Hey Dominican cab driver, stop talking. After about three minutes of silence, he chimed in with, I can make excellent empanadas. There was no segue or any previous indicator that we had talked about empanadas, but because I was afraid I had already hurt his feelings, I took the bait. He went on to tell me about how he tried to contact Starbucks’ corporate office to market his empanadas, but they didn’t want his recipe. Eventually, they would pay. He was going to open up his own empanada business, and if I was interested, I could join him. He fries them instead of baking them. I think the latter half of the conversation was in Spanish because I couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore. Eventually, things got quiet again.
At this point, we had hit dead stop traffic, and I was paying to sit in a cab and listen to him talk about empanadas. After about two minutes, he told me that people that smoke have to carry tanks of oxygen around and wear masks. As the meter kept rolling, I knew I had to make a quick getaway. This man had painted my future as a 50 year old, empanada-businessman, who was lonely but actually died around 34 from smoking. I asked, Hey, I can get off here, if that’s cool. He said, your destination is still five blocks away. Desperately trying to escape the car, I said, Oh, that’s fine. I like to walk, and I can get Starbucks on my way back to the office. Shit. He hates Starbucks, Justin. I quickly handed him the money and leapt out of the backseat in the same way that I thought I would have to leap in.
In the end, maybe it isn’t such a good idea to ride around with strangers. I know that one day, I’ll tell my children about the perils of riding in cars with strangers, but I won’t scare them out of it with ambiguous stories of men in van with candy and ill-intentions. I’ll tell them about how sometimes strangers do psychedelic drugs and talk over your head in that annoying, transcendental way. I’ll tell them about how sometimes they criticize your way of life and then implore about why you don’t have a sex life. And most of all, I’ll take them to Starbucks to have that conversation, and we will most certainly not be ordering empanadas.