Thursday, January 11, 2018

Of Flat Tires and Unexpected Grace

It was just a short trip across town. I was taking a gag gift from Christmas – the Blair Witch Santa sculpture given to us by a friend as a joke -  and a couple of unopened bottles of Mountain Dew left over from Thanksgiving to my Brother’s house across town. He loves Mountain Dew (G-d only knows why and She ain’t tellin’) and I left a note under the Santa sculpture so he and Ruthie Lamb would know this was not a drive by trolling:

 “Happy 11th Day of Christmas!”

No doubt he would know immediately that it was his crazy Episcopal priest Brother who left it.

I tend to take alternative routes to common destinations simply to keep my mind fresh and not to fall into too much of a routine. On the way home I drove down busy Semoran Boulevard and turned into Baldwin Park.

I drove down the main entrance of the neighborhood into the development that at one time housed the Orlando Air Force Base and the Naval Training Center which succeeded it. As I turned left onto Lake Baldwin Circle, I caught a glance out of the corner of my eye of a black SUV which had failed to stop at the sign on the southbound lane and was barreling through the intersection toward me.

I floored the accelerator and cleared the intersection. But the narrow roadway around Lake Baldwin is bordered by a rather high and rigid curb. My right front tire hit the curb at just the right angle and immediately exploded.

Whap, whap, whap.

My only choice was to pull into the first side street I came to, an entry into a residential neighborhood. I came to a rest in a parking place just off the main road.

I was going to have to change a tire. It would be my first time doing so in this new car, a hybrid Prius about which I know less than any other car I’ve ever owned. Indeed what I’ve known about my previous cars largely came as a result of having to fix things that went wrong with them.

I got the jack and spare tire out of the trunk. I was unsure where to place the jack and so I ended up placing it under the front bumper (as it were) of the car and began jacking. Soon I had the car lifted high enough that I could get the tire, with its six inch gaping hole, off the axle.

That’s when the trouble began.

From Annoying to Grave

The “bumper” under which I had placed the jack turned out to be little more than plastic. I thought I had felt a metal strut of some kind prior to beginning lifting the car but apparently I was mistaken. I heard the plastic begin to crumple, jumping back quickly to keep the car from coming down on my foot.

It slowly settled to the pavement, the axle where the tire had been now resting on the pavement. The jack was trapped beneath the front of the car. I finally managed to shimmy it out and kicked it from beneath the car.

That was when I saw that the jack itself had been caught by the weight of the descending car and the end of the grooved rolling portion that expands and contracts the lift had been bent at a 45º angle.

Suddenly the gravity of my situation swept over me. Here I stood in the parking lot of a condominium complex on the coldest day of the year wearing little more than a sweater over a polo shirt. The sun was beginning to go down and a chilly wind was blowing across Lake Baldwin unimpeded.

My car was parked halfway into the driveway of the complex where I had pulled over to fix the flat and leave myself enough room from the curb to do so. While my car was not blocking the entrance road, should another driver as distracted as the one who had just run me up onto the curb come along, Wilson, my ailing Prius hybrid, could be toast. 

Worse yet, I did not have my cellphone with me. I commonly take it on trips of any duration, down to Kissimmee to teach, over to Bushnell to work on our family home. But today I was just making the 8 mile trip to my Brother’s house and figured I didn’t need it.

Until I did.

I got back in my car and slumped down in the seat. I felt tears welling up as I heard myself pleading, “Aw, come on, can’t you give me just ONE break today?”

“Better Things to Do….”

Resident after resident in SUVs (is there a law that one must own an SUV to live in a ”planned community”?) passed me on the street as I stood there doing my best damsel in distress imitation (a pretty mean trick when you have a three days growth beard). The only person to actually stop was a young man in a jeep. He was headed to the gym and seemed anxious just talking with me.

I asked if he had a cellphone I could use to call AAA. He said he’d left it in the condo. (Apparently I’m not the only one who leaves their needed cell phone at home). He also said he had a jack but didn’t think it would work to lift the car. He apologized and headed off to the gym.

If nothing else, I appreciated the recognition of my humanity. That was more than I got from his neighbors.

That was when the unexpected began.

A couple minutes later, a truck from a construction company pulled up alongside. Three young Afro-Caribbean men were inside. They were headed from one interior reconstruction project to another within the complex. “Do you need some help?” the driver asked.

I told him my plight and asked if I could use his cell phone to call AAA. He handed it right over adding with a sheepish grin “Don’t pay any attention to any naked women photos you might see.” I smiled.

Nude photos were the least of my worries this day.

My telephone encounter with AAA can only be described as adding insult to injury. My husband had created this account for me only last year and I’d never used it before. I called the number on the card and not surprisingly got a telephone chain. The first announcement essentially said “If you want service, download the app and use it. Otherwise we’ll get to you whenever.”

Not having my own cellphone to work with, I simply pressed the number to wait. The voice cheerfully announced it would be at least 10 minutes. I told the guys in the truck what I was up against and the driver simply said, “Don’t worry, man. It’s cool”

After nearly 15 minutes of enduring some of the most irritating wait time music ever, I hung up, called Andy’s cell phone and left a message. I knew he’d never answer a number he didn’t recognize. So I simply told him I was in trouble, where I was and that I’d be waiting for him when he arrived. With that I handed the cell phone back to the driver and told him thanks for his kindness.

Back in my car, angry tears were brimming in my eyes. I was truly feeling sorry for myself. And I thought “Dammit, I have better things to do with my time than sit in a broken-down car enduring the cold.”

It was just at that moment that some of the teaching Richard Rohr had imparted to me in the Living School came back to me: Our irritation and anger usually result from not having our expectations of life met.

The reality was, I was safe and I would be rescued eventually. Everything that had occurred this day was reparable. I was simply inconvenienced.

Then a Living School reading from Thich Nhat Hanh swam into focus: Suffering results from attachments, starting with our presumptions about the way life should be. Today, life was having nothing to do with those presumptions. My job was to accept the reality I faced and deal as best I could. And my initial response left a great deal of room for improvement.

Strangers Willing To Help

It was only about five minutes later when a maintenance man in a golf cart drove up. He was a working-class man of Celtic descent with an Australian accent. I asked if he could call a towing service to come get me, that I was broken down and concerned that I was partially blocking his driveway.

“What’s the problem here?” he asked. I explained what had happened. He came over to look at my poor disabled Prius. He asked to see the jack, thinking perhaps we could jack it up and get the tire on. When I showed him the jack with its bent end, he smiled, no doubt thinking some variant of “Dumb Yuppie.” And in this case, he would have been close.

“That’s not going to work anymore,” he said. “But hang on.”

In a minute he had called a fellow maintenance worker to the site, another Afro-Caribbean man whose English bore a strong Latin accent. His Aussie coworker asked him to go get a jack. The man appeared within five minutes bearing the jack and looked over the situation.

“I don’t think that’s going to be enough,” he said. He took off in his golf cart only to return five minutes later with a second, larger jack. With the first jack, the men got the axle up off the pavement and enough space under the side of the car to get the second jack under it. They then lifted the car, put the spare on and let it down again.

“You’re going to need to take your car directly to the Wawa right over on Semoran,” the second man said. “Your spare is almost flat. You can’t drive it around like this.”

Just like that, I was ready to go.

I fumbled in my wallet to find some cash to give them. I didn’t know if it would insult them by cheapening their good deed or be appreciated as recognition of their good work. Guessing that condo associations probably are not the most magnanimous employers, I erred on the side of the latter. They both grinned as I profusely thanked them and handed them each a $20.

Before my little adventure with my Prius was over, it would cost me another $90 for a new tire and an hour and a half wait at the Firestone. I still needed a jack. Moreover, I was hearing a scraping noise when the car came to a stop.

I headed to the Toyota dealer.

Two hours and $50 later, I emerged relieved. The bumper had folded in when the car settled on the parking lot enough to rub against the tire. The dealer also had a replacement jack which set me back another $230. But I was back in business, a new tire, a jack and a full spare just in case.

I hope whatever had distracted that driver in the black SUV was damned important. It ended up being pretty costly to me. But it could have been much worse.

Reflecting on Unexpected Generosity

As with all the events of my life, I have spent a good bit of time the last few days trying to make sense of these exchanges. What occurred to me as I thought back over these events was that while it would seem on the surface that I was the victim of some bad luck, in fact I had been the recipient of unexpected generosity. Had it not been for the folks who came along and were willing to help a complete stranger, I’d have been sitting in a disabled car partly blocking a residential street for a lot longer, possibly placing my car and my life in danger.

The Christian tradition has long described such unexpected generosity of spirit as grace, the evidence of the active love of G-d in the world. Problem is, we too often want to taint the goodness of that generosity with egocentric adjectives like undeserved or unmerited, notions more inclined to foster feelings of dependency than gratitude.

Truth is, I’m not sure there is any living being who does not deserve compassion. I have never been convinced that constructs of a G-d who did not love all of Creation without exception or condition were worth taking seriously. The whole point of Creation, as I see it, is the inception of loving relationship between Creator and creation.

I also find notions of merit unhelpful. By even introducing that notion into the equation it brings the idea in through the back door that one must somehow earn the love of G_d through one’s thoughts, words or deeds before G-d is willing to love you. 

There is no such thing as conditional love. Attitudes, words and behaviors induced – if not coerced - by the conditional acceptance of another may be a lot of things but they simply aren’t love.

What I experienced Friday was neither undeserved nor unmerited. It was simply unexpected. And yet it occurred. In the end I was not so much blessed as lucky. But I am grateful for that unexpected good fortune. And in that moment I experienced myself as the beneficiary of grace.

Those Who Looked Like Me Looked Away

Today it occurred to me that there is a parallel to this encounter in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Scholars believe that parable is one of the few we can authentically trace back to Jesus himself and not a later developing Christian tradition and it has long been one of my favorite bible passages.

In that story a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by robbers who take his goods and leave him seriously injured and vulnerable to the elements. The people who pass by the man, averting their gaze to keep from even looking upon his afflictions, were the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisee who defined himself by his right actions in the light of the developing oral tradition, the Sadducee who defined himself by a purity code that permitted him access to the Temple complex.

In the end the one who helped the man in need was totally unexpected. Samaritans were seen as inferior by the Judeans, country bumpkins whose tainted religious ideas were a threat to the pure religion practiced in Jerusalem, unclean people to be shunned at all cost. And yet it was the Samaritan who “proved neighbor to this man,” the point Jesus is raising in this provocative parable which he ends with “Go and do likewise.”

What was striking about this incident with my car is who the players were. I don’t know who the person was who ran me off the highway, I just know they had a nice recent model black SUV. Chances are, given the neighborhood, this person was from a socio-economic background and professional status not much different from my own.

The people who passed by without stopping were those who looked like me and shared my life circumstances as well. They drove nice cars and wore clothing that signaled their membership in the professional middle class. Chances are they held similar educational attainment and socio-economic status. With the exception of the one young man in the jeep who stayed long enough to commiserate with me, none of them stopped to help. Indeed, like the Pharisee and Sadducee in the parable, they looked away to keep from seeing me.

The people who did help me were people very different from me. With the exception of the working class young man with the Australian accent, they were all people of color. The young construction worker in his truck who handed over his cell phone and then waited 15 minutes for AAA assistance that never came was of Afro-Caribbean heritage, speaking to his coworkers in Spanish and to me in English. The second maintenance man who rounded up all the jacks was also Afro-Caribbean working class.

The ones who shared my achieved and ascribed characteristics were the ones who passed me by unnoticed. And the ones who had every reason to resent the privilege usually afforded white, professional middle class middle aged men like me – the ones people like me have been told to mistrust and view with condescending contempt – were, like the Good Samaritan, the ones who ultimately saved me.

“Which one was neighbor to this man?” was the rhetorical question Jesus posed at the end of the parable, adding “Go and do likewise.“

May I Go and Do Likewise….

I believe that unexpected goodness in the world is what grace is all about. I think it occurs around us all the time in unexpected situations waiting to be noticed. I see that unexpected goodness as the evidence of the goodness of a Creator G-d who loves all of creation without condition or partiality. It is a Creator G_d who freely showers grace, like the rains, “on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”

While thoroughly egocentric if not anthropocentric concerns about whether such goodness is deserved or merited have long been part of the Christian tradition’s construction of grace, they are completely unhelpful in appreciating the role that unexpected goodness plays in our daily lives. What is clear to me is that it is precisely through the agency of people we often least suspect that the grace of G_d is made manifest in this world. And for that lesson learned on the side of a condo complex entry road on a cold, blustery Friday, I am deeply grateful.

I pray that when the time comes, I, too, will go and do likewise.      

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018



Mark Benson said...

Thanks, Harry, you're my man.

Melinda said...

Lovely, Harry. Thank you.