People panhandling on the street evoke a typical range of emotions in me: Sadness for their situation, frustration about societal neglect, annoyance at being put on the spot, and guilt at either of my typical responses – giving begrudgingly, or not giving at all.
And there’s my faithful companion, fear of being played. When a panhandler tells a concise tale of desperation – “I just need bus fare to visit a sick relative,” or “My wife has stage 4 lymphoma” – I immediately wonder, “Really?” I don’t want to be played, find myself outdone by a scheme.
During the pandemic I rarely traveled far from home; before our month-long road trip across the country, the only panhandlers I had seen for quite a while were those in my own town who tend to station themselves on street corners or in the medians at stoplights and wait for generous souls, rather than approaching and asking, at least in my experience.
Most of our destinations were national parks, which aren’t exactly panhandler hot spots. In our escapades in San Francisco, however, we passed people sleeping in building entryways and shopping carts mounded with sidewalk households. Near where we bought hot dogs we saw two different men holding their cardboard signs; one of us who wasn’t me gave one some cash. We also drove by tent cities and through blocks of boarded up buildings and trash-littered streets with people milling about liquor stores.
On our second night in the city, after having spent what felt like outrageous sums on hot dogs and a dinner in Chinatown the night before, we opted for cheap pizzas in Berkley, as we’d driven across the Bay Bridge to see it up close. We’d considered finding a park to eat in, but instead ended up eating in our minivan in a parking lot facing across the street to where a tent village was sandwiched between the busy street and a high fence protecting a commuter railway. An official sign on the fence said “NO CAMPING” but a banner further along said “Our Tent Community.”
Someone was lying under a minivan with its hood up, apparently napping mid repair. Another ventured to the curb to empty a plastic jug of brownish liquid. On our side of the street, an old man was sorting through a trash can, its contents spread around him in piles on the sidewalk.
When the rest of my family took our pizza boxes to throw away, they offered him our leftovers. “Thanks,” he said. “Oh, and it’s still warm!”
A week later we were passing through a reservation in Arizona. Many of the communities along the highways we traveled in the West and Southwest looked economically depressed: run-down buildings surrounded by junked vehicles and sage brush, few businesses or trees, maybe a corral with a few horses or cattle. Hitchhikers were common.
We stopped for gas and groceries in the same town where 14 years ago Maria and I had eaten buffalo burgers in the Blue Teapot Cafe. It was still there, but since due to COVID we weren’t eating in anywhere, we went to the grocery store – a really nice one, which was refreshing given the run-down surroundings – for fresh veggies, fruit, a few other things, and my impulse buy for the day, a jar of dill pickles.
The clerk and a woman ahead of me in the checkout line chatted like friends, but then the woman left behind a package of pork chops in the bagging area, which I pointed out to the clerk.
“Oh, she decided not to buy that,” the clerk said, keying in the -$18.99 on the cash register, then ringing up my purchases. The total was more than $60. Really? This was going to be an expensive lunch, and I was genuinely puzzled.
“Is it $60? That seems like more than I expected.” Sure enough, the clerk had forgotten (“forgotten”?) to close the woman’s ticket, and she’d left without paying. “It’s okay, I know her,” the clerk said. “I’ll call her.” She re-ran just my purchases, around $30.
Was it a mistake? I think so. Was it an attempted scam? That’s possible, too.
Out in the parking lot as we were loading the groceries, a woman suddenly appeared beside me and said, “Excuse me, could you spare any food or cash?” I was just about to stash the pickles, and in the rush of my mix of panhandling emotions, impulsively and ungraciously said, “How about some pickles?” She accepted them and walked away, and I was left behind with my own feelings and the wrath of A Certain Other in my family who, already annoyed that I’d bought the pickles, was indignant that I didn’t offer the woman a more nutritious option.
The final two days of our road trip were long hauls: 14 and 10 hours of driving, respectively. On the first afternoon, as I sat waiting in the van for the rest of the family to finish in the gas station bathroom, a man walked past. His clothes were a bit shabby; I thought I could pick out his weary SUV nearby in the crowded parking area. We made eye contact but he kept going.
Then all at once he was back. It was a sunny day, my window was down, and he asked if he could use my phone to call his brother to come buy him gas. I could hold my phone if I wanted, and he would tell me the phone number.
Really? Like, he wasn’t going to get a busy signal and then just ask me for gas money? Or grab my unlocked phone and run off? I’m sure I looked like I didn’t want to do it, but I started keying in the phone number. Just then, my family came out of the store.
“Oh, they’re here,” I told the guy. “I need to go.”
Whew. And Guilt.
That night we stayed at our nicest hotel yet, in Mount Vernon, Illinois. We were exhausted, yet so ready to be home after a full month away that we set our alarms for 5:30 a.m. in order to grab a quick breakfast and be on the road by 6:30.
We made pretty good time in the morning doing all that, until I started the van and we saw a large puddle forming on the frosty pavement underneath. Something sounded weird, too, so I quickly turned it back off.
At first I thought it was transmission fluid, as we’d had a check engine alert with a transmission code for the last couple thousand miles. Earlier in the trip two different mechanics had simply reset the code, saying that our heavy load and high speeds were probably causing momentary problems that we could ignore for a while. Neither had charged us for their time; perhaps we looked a bit ragtag. Now maybe the problem was for real.
I checked for low levels under the hood: it was power steering fluid, a massive hemorrhage. Thankfully it hadn’t happened while we were driving on the highway the night before – that would have been an inconvenient stranding – but still I was stressed: What options could there be on a Saturday morning? Were we going to have to wait around in the hotel until next week?
I called a friend back home who knows about cars and who agreed with the internet that driving without power steering fluid could cause lots of damage to the engine. I called Walmart, a truck repair shop, and a mechanic with towing service, but none did this type of work or were working that morning. I started looking up vehicle rental options and listings at a local dealership.
The kids played games in the hotel room and dreamed about what car we should buy; I would have liked their Cadillac SUV choice, too – believe me. I tried looking under the van to see if I could spot an obvious problem that I could fix, but it was just overwhelmingly drippy, and I couldn’t see much.
The hotel clerk recommended we call Walmart and the same mechanic with towing service that I’d already contacted, so I did, again. “Did I talk to you already this morning?” I said to the towing guy. “I’m still looking for help. Any suggestions?”
“I know some guys whose shop is closed but they’re in there working anyway,” he said. “I’ll check with them and call you back,” and he did.
The place was four and a half miles away. I left the family behind and stopped at a gas station for several bottles of power steering fluid, which I stopped every couple of miles to add. After each refill the power steering worked for a moment – 10 feet? – before failing again, smoke from fluid on the exhaust pipe billowing around the van and in through the air ducts.
One of the times, a couple guys in an SUV that looked in much worse condition than our van slowed to ask, “Hey brother, need anything?” No, I said, but thanks.
When I arrived at the shop, I could see some lights on inside, and some of the vehicles in the parking lot didn’t have any of the morning frost on, but I couldn’t see anyone. I was just calling the towing guy back again when two men came out, who I later learned were George and I’ll say Tom, as I don’t remember his name.
Tom said, “We can’t tell what’s wrong until we get it up on a lift, and our lifts are tied up, so it’ll have to be next week.”
George got down on the pavement, looked under the van, and said, “Let’s go check with Richard.”
“Pull into bay four,” Richard said.
Richard, I learned, drag races. During the week he fixes cars to earn money; on weekends he works on his race cars, which costs any money he earns. He quickly found a disconnected hose in our van, and sent Tom to buy a replacement fastener. While we were waiting Richard showed me one of his cars, which he said he’d “blown up” the weekend before, and then, as Tom was taking forever to return, he started cleaning the power steering fluid off the underbelly of our van – and found that our power steering fluid cooler was literally falling apart. He called Tom to pick up that part, too.
I also talked more with George, a former truck driver with two back surgeries to show for it who comes to the shop to hang out and talk politics. If we had a Republican president, he said, we wouldn’t have the current truck driver shortage.
He smoked a cigarette and said he had 15 kids, and that kids need to be taught how to work. His son came to him one day and said he needed his oil and tire pressure checked, but George wouldn’t do it for him: “Your sister listened and learned when I showed you both how to do it. You’ll be able to tell when you have a flat tire.”
Richard weighed in occasionally: he sure hopes Biden makes it through his presidency, so we don’t have Kamala for president, and the new Republican governor in Virginia, a Black woman, will be good for the state because she’s not so conservative.
About five more guys showed up while we were waiting, to hang out and talk cars and be ribbed by George. Tom eventually reappeared, parts in hand, and finally the van was ready to start again.
“Let’s call it $200,” Richard told me. “Come during the week and I would’ve charged you double.”
We were on the road before noon, and made it home that night, to my great delight. Dad had kept our lawn mowed, turned the water heater back on, and started a fire in the wood stove to welcome us; my sister and mother-in-law had put soups and more in the fridge. When we pulled up the driveway our oldest burst into tears at relief to be home and was still crying when I tucked her in; the next oldest shrieked and laughed and teared up as she ran around remembering everything; and the youngest seemed happy and excited, too.
It was pure luxury.