Okay, a New Year’s Eve story from several years ago. Don’t know why I haven’t told it before, but I haven’t. It’s kind of long for the internet.
A few years back, I was living in a very poor neighborhood — not surprising as I was then very poor and ill myself. There were so many impoverished people around me — some because they were old and not well provided for, some because they were too mentally or physically disabled to work, and a few (very few) because “poor” was simply their lifestyle and they didn’t have any idea how not to be.
It was a bitterly cold night. There had been quite a bit of snow, a brief thaw, and now there was a mixture of slick ice, rough re-frozen lumps of snow here and there, and the freezing cold of the air. It wasn’t late — maybe 7 pm — and I’d suddenly realized that all the shops would be closed on the morrow and I was out of cat food — not mention various important bits of human food. Poor, but I had enough to get cat food and a bit of people food.
So, I went out to the car in a hurry, warmed it up a little, started carefully for the street, moving very slowly as I backed out of my parking space and turned toward the road — slowly, slowly through the treacherous ice. Almost immediately she slid on a large lump of ice in the parking lot and started moving slowly but stubbornly sideways.
Dear heavy old Volvo — there was no stopping her once gravity took hold. She slid toward the ditch between street and house and started inexorably down toward the bottom four feet away, nose-first. I slammed the brakes on hard — unwise tactics on ice, but there was nothing to lose at that point. She stopped halfway into the ditch, badly tilted, and with the front wheels in the cold, thin air of open space. The car frame under me resting on the ground, and the back wheels loosely touching — no traction at all, but gently kissing the earth. Balanced. Just. My foot stayed as hard on the brakes as it could go and the car trembled on her balance point with my every movement, every breath. I hung on. The stars looked down as stars do at such moments with apparent total disinterest.
No one was outside — not in that cold. I waited. And waited, all of my focus on that brake pedal. Eventually an old car pulled up across the street where I knew an elderly woman lived. A pile of men and boys got out. Noticing my strangely precarious parking spot, the eldest in the lead as a string of others followed, all strolled ponderously across the icy street toward me, almost like a herd of peaceful elephants drifting across the veldt toward an interesting but not threatening curiosity. How had they all gotten into that ordinary-sized car? I rolled down my window and Eldest stated matter-of-factly, “Hey, you got a problem here.”
“I know,” I said humbly. “She slid. On the ice.”
He nodded. They ambled around the car, quietly discussing the problem. I sat with my foot hard on the brake. The parking brake never was worth much, but I had pulled it, slowly and carefully, on all the way on as well. Eldest, gray hair shining in the faint light like a halo, gently drifted back to the window and announced, “Some of the boys sit on the back, bring her rear end down to ground, some push her up and back from the front, and some pull her backwards with ropes up on the parking lot while you give her a little gas. Not much or she just slip. We do it.”
I wish I could do a Samoan accent here, but I can’t so you’ll have to do the best you can with making it yourself. And did you know that some Samoans are BIG people? These were tall and sturdy. I couldn’t count them, milling around in the dark as they were, but the grown ones were massive and both they and the boys were enthusiastic. Yes, it might be possible.
It wasn’t. Even several large Samoans in bulky, heavy winter coats didn’t seem to outweigh the engine and strongly-built front end hanging out in space. (Old Volvos were famous for their strength and toughness.) I wound up six inches farther into the ditch in spite of the vein-pounding, strong pushing and pulling. I was seriously frightened for the ones in the front, who seemed not willing to give up. I jammed the brakes back on.
By this time my other neighbors were out, gathering in shivering clumps, talking quietly to each other and shaking their heads, but not coming near, not wanting to get into whatever trouble might ensue. One woman did offer me a cup of coffee, but for the most part they were heads-down people — poor in money, poor in spirit, pre-defeated people staying back out of trouble.
Eldest came back to the window. I mentioned, not really hopeful, that it might be a good idea to call a tow truck. Eldest shook his head.
“New Year’s Eve, all this ice — tow truck busy everywhere. Not come for hours, if come ever. And if tow truck do come, he call cops and report.” He slowly shook his head. All of them shook their heads like big tree tops waving in a strong wind. “Not wanting cops. Just trouble, cops. Big fines, maybe jail. You not want cops.”
I agreed. I didn’t want cops. Really, I couldn’t pay for a tow truck anyway. I sat with my both of my feet jammed on the brake, one on top of the other — the first leg had long since started to quiver with the strain and needed its mate to help. (It occurs to me now, as it didn’t then, that with the back wheels off the ground the brakes probably weren’t doing any good at all, but even if I’d thought of that at the time, nothing could have made me release them. Opening a window was okay, opening a heavy door, letting it swing its weight forward as it opened was unthinkable in that precarious position.)
Considering things slowly with my near-frozen brain, I said, “We could do it with a heavy truck. With chains on its tires. And a big chain to pull the car. Because an ordinary rope just isn’t going to do this. But… we don’t have any of this.”
He said, “Yeah, we don’t got, but maybe I know where we get.” He sent several men off in their car on incomprehensible errands and went with them. He left two of the sturdiest to stand guard over me. I don’t know what they could have done if the car decided to tip another inch and go down nose-first into that steep, deep ditch. Then I noticed that two more of the biggest had quietly gone to the back and were sitting on it again. I don’t know if that really helped, but it was comforting.
I saw my cats sitting in the window — waiting, watching, probably wondering what I thought I was doing now. And where was their promised dinner?
About an hour later (it felt like ten, like my dashboard clock was seriously lying — I swear the hands barely moved for long stretches of time) their car came back with only Eldest and the young driver.
“We fix,” he announced, looming over the car with an enormous, gleaming smile scintillating in the starlight.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a huge behemoth of a truck lumbering down the road? Looking about to fall apart, but certainly meeting the criteria of big, it pulled ponderously into place behind me with gentle mutterings and rattles. There was still plenty of room in the parking lot. The driver, sized to fit his truck, gazed at the car calmly, considered, nodded once, smiled at me, went to the back of the truck, and began pulling chains out, letting them clank and clatter to the ground. There was a rattle of tire chains as they struggled with these fairly foreign-to-us-coastal-Washingtonians objects. At last, the tire chains seemed in order, and they began rattling and tugging at a much more mammoth chain, stretching it out on the ground. It looked a lot like a massive boat’s anchor chain. They hooked it on to the truck and wrapped it thoroughly onto and around the strongest points under the back of my car (whatever they were) and looped it back to the truck. It certainly wasn’t hitched to the wee metal loop meant for hooking things onto. Nor to the rusted back bumper. With a final jerk and a tug that jolted the car and made my stomach somersault, they stood back. Eldest checked the chain and nodded. The truck driver checked it and nodded. The nods ran through the rest of the watching forest.
Back at my window again, Eldest said to me. “Truck pull, you feel her moving back, take foot off brake and give her little gas. In reverse,” he stressed, looking at me intently to be sure I understood. Feet still pushing hard on the brake, I restarted the engine, let her idle, and put her gently almost into reverse. He grinned and patted the window frame.
I nodded, thoroughly rejecting a sneaky, scared inner vision of the chain breaking under the stress, the truck plummeting into and through the houses on the other side of the parking lot, and the Volvo and I diving down into the hole ahead. Even in the snow, the ditch looked hard and dangerous. I knew from personal observation that it had big rocks in the bottom, and by now that ditch yawned fifteen feet deep in my mind. Or maybe even bottomless. I knew it was three or four, but it felt like fifteen. Or bottomless.
“We do, lady, we do.” Deep voice at the window. Very reassuring. I believed him — by then I couldn’t imagine him not doing anything he was determined to do.
The truck rattled, coughed a few times, and revved up with an uncertain rumble. I noticed that all my other neighbors had silently disappeared. I hoped they were not all in the house right in front of the truck. The chain tightened and the Volvo quivered. I could feel every link in the chain go taut. Go, baby, go! Be a real Volvo!
We began to move very slowly, inching backwards, the car’s undercarriage scraping along the gravelly ground. I took my foot off of the brakes, put her into reverse, and gave her a little touch more gas. The front end started to rise as the wheels began to touch the edge of the ditch. Finally, they were back up on terra firma. Another two slow feet back. Eldest slapped the side of the car and shouted once. A word I didn’t know. The truck stopped. I put on the parking brakes and turned the ignition off.
As I climbed out of the car on trembling and shaky legs — I had been holding the brake down as hard as I could for over an hour with both feet and every bit of strength I had and I might have been afloat on a sea of adrenaline. I was surrounded by huge grins and happy murmurs of approval. There may have been the patting of backs and shaking of hands amid the clank of chains being removed. I reached back in the car for my purse, but Eldest put his hand on my arm, and shook his head “no”. Fiat!
I began babbling, “Thank you thank you thank you thank you” over and over. I hugged Eldest and he hugged me back. I hugged all of them, I think, there in the dark and cold, still babbling. Samoans, these Samoans, my neighbors did great hugs. I needed all of them, giving and receiving in the only currency that met the need of that moment.
Eldest offered to have one of the younger ones park her for me. I said, “Oh, no! I’m going to the store.”
He laughed and slapped the car again. “You go! She good car! You go!” There was a chorus of quiet laughter and approving “you go!” and I went. I must have been crazy — the snow plows had been along the main streets but hadn’t done much good there and had not even attempted anything in the supermarket’s parking lot. But I got the cat food and with the rest of my money I bought the biggest cake, the most lavish cake I could find. It said ‘Happy New Year’ on it in Spanish. That seemed appropriate — good will expressed mutually incomprehensibly.
When I got home again, I fed the cats and went across the road to where the Samoan grandmother lived by herself, though I’d noticed before that she was rarely truly by herself — family was always popping in and out. I knocked on her door, and it was answered by Grandmother herself, matriarch of the clan. I’m far from young, and I’ve my share of wrinkles, but she had wrinkles from here to forever. They got even crinklier and wrinklier as she smiled her eyes into shiny slits and nodded. She knew the whole story from a viewpoint I’d never know. I handed her the cake and said several more fervent thank yous. We couldn’t speak a intelligible word to each other, but we both got it. She hugged me and gestured for me to come in. I could hear a boisterous family party of all ages going on behind her. I was overcome by a fit of unusual shyness and with a final “thank you,” I bolted for home.
It was my best New Year’s Eve ever. I don’t know how many New Year’s Eve parties I’d disrupted that evening, but everyone seemed to think their evening all the better for the disruption. A rescue! What fun! It might have been a lot better still had I been a little braver and less of a hermit. It might have changed my life then and changed my entire perception of my neighborhood. It did change it some, but it might have been a lot more. A revelation. Still, it was no longer seemed a totally unfriendly place of strangers to me. After that, when I went out and daughters were sitting in the sun watching grandchildren play, the daughters and I smiled and said hello. Tall, bulky young men passing on the street waved and lit up with a smile. A gift. A precious gift.
It is now 4 AM on January 1st, anno domini 2016. All of us now still breathing have made it into yet another year. My adventures have been “interesting” in this year past as well and taught me much about community and family, I’m grateful for what this and all of the years before have taught me about what makes people strong, what makes people weak, about family, about community, about people who have it and people who don’t.
If we stand on the solid ground of a cohesive family, a sharing community, it is far easier to reach out to others in need. If our foundations rest on the shifting sands of casual friends who are here today and gone tomorrow, it is much harder to realize that “everyone for themselves” and “look out for number one” are just nonsense, both impossible and foolish. We need each other. At unexpected moments and impossible-to-predict times, we need each other. We can’t just turn our backs and walk away.
And we need gratitude. We ourselves need to know that we have reason to be grateful, even if all we think we still have is our breath and major challenges.
We learn compassion and strength from our families and communities, and that is the key that gives us the ability to stand solid and to reach out to strangers without fear — and without needing to make fantasies and excuses for our fears as we slink away. Perhaps one of the marks of a healthy community is that it can welcome strangers in and assimilate them hospitably.
Living in community and working together in good will through the problems that naturally arise between people generates both a strength and a willingness to embrace others into the sheltering circle. And we all know that a circle is a line that has no end.