December 3, 2010
There’s an 8-hour window when traffic on Route 7 in Sterling, VA, is anything less than rush-hour volume and the old man making his way up the side of the road is about four hours shy of it.
It’s 5 p.m. and I’m leaving the World Market parking lot where our carpool meets. For carpool meeting spots, it’s not a bad location. That’s because there’s a turning lane just to the right of the mall exit that doubles as an acceleration lane, allowing me to merge with my fellow commuters heading home after a day’s work in Washington, DC.
I’m second in line at the stop sign to turn right, and I've got my eye on the old man walking up the side of the road. Black man, black cane, just enough giddy-up in his get-along to make me think he’ll be okay in the fading light and increasing traffic.
The guy ahead of me makes the turn. The old guy is about 30 yards away. If there’s a break in the next five seconds, I can probably make it. But he seems focused enough that I wave him on.
He smiles, lifts his cane in reply and mutters something that doesn’t make it through my rolled-up window.
I nod my head — “Yeah, yeah… go ahead… I’ll wait until you go around!”
His smile gets even broader as he starts to gallop at a full hop around the front of my Camry.
He makes it past it the right headlight and I turn my head to the left to see how traffic is doing. At the rate he’s moving, he’ll be clear of my car and I’ll be able to start my merge in three seconds.
What I didn’t know was that he was starting his merge as well.
He slides his hand along the right front fender, starts down the right side of my car and before I even realize it, his hand is on the door handle.
“Whoa, buddy! Whoa… I was just letting you pass...” I yell, waving my arms frantically at the door. Thank God for the automatic locks while my car is in gear.
He peers inside my car, sees it’s locked but that I’m still talking to him, so he figures I must be taking umbrage with his wish to ride shotgun.
He moves to my rear passenger door.
In less time than it takes him to grab the handle, I put my car in “Park” and open the right front door. It's obvious this old guy thought I was offering him a ride, so I might as well do it.
I get the smile.
“I am going to Home Depot,” he announces in a thick foreign accent as he slips comfortably into my front seat.
“Okay, then…” I say, spotting an opening in traffic.
And with that, we’re off.
As I make the merge onto Rt. 7, his seatbelt alarm begins its insistent wail. I tug at my belt to let him know to buckle up. Raised eyebrows must be the international signal for sudden comprehension, because he raises his, smiles again and buckles up.
I never get his name. He’s from Ethiopia, his English isn’t good, but his Italian is flawless. I don’t speak Italian, do I?
No, I don’t.
Home Depot is maybe five minutes out of my way. All I can think is — this is how they roll in the Big E. You going my way? Okay… hop in.
I get bits and pieces of his story in deliberate English.
He’s an auto mechanic.
Back home he had 12 people working for him.
His sons and daughters came to America for college.
He paid 6,000 barat (he names a foreign currency that I can’t comprehend… Italian? Ethiopian? I’ll never know…) to send them here.
He can’t go back to his country. He’ll face 20 months in prison.
He had a gun, which is not a crime.
He had bullets in his gun, which apparently is.
My shortcut to Home Depot has him a little apprehensive. When it’s not off to the left of the parking lot that I pull into, I’m a little apprehensive as well. Turns out the Home Depot is one section of this four-city-block wide shopping area, and all I need to do is literally go down a block and there it is.
He thanks me profusely, shakes my hand, thanks me again, wishing that he knew more English to tell me again how thankful he is.
At some point, I get the sense that he really appreciates the lift.
I know it was the high point of my day.