Peace on Earth in the Parking Lot

He helped a stranger in a stalled car. But he soon realized that she helped him remember the true meaning of Christmas.

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Posted in , Oct 27, 2021

J.P.;Photo credit: Jim Graham

Our grocery shopping out of the way, I steered the car toward the exit to the parking lot. That’s as far as we got before my wife, Lois, and I saw hazard lights flashing. An off-white Kia Soul was stalled on a gentle slope near where the exit lane met the road. A long line of cars eased around it, some honking, shoppers urgently trying to get their errands done amid the December holiday craziness.

“Great,” I said to Lois. “Just great.” I nosed around the offending vehicle, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the driver, a slight figure hunched over the steering wheel and wearing a dark green hoodie pulled tight.

“I think it’s a woman,” I told Lois.

“You should roll down your window and make sure everything’s okay.”

“I don’t know,” Lois said, sizing up the driver. “These days, you just can’t tell about people. Better to be safe than sorry.”

I edged out into traffic. Lois, the more cautious one, was right. Holiday stress could bring out the worst in people, and not just in busy parking lots. That was just scratching the surface. Across the nation, no one, it seemed, could agree on anything. Racial strife. Social unease. Crime on the rise. Neighbors acting like strangers. Peace on earth? I didn’t see it on the gift list for this year. Not even in our tiny community in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

I was a few miles down the road when a thought—definitely not my own—stopped me: The Bible talked about entertaining angels unawares. Was I missing an opportunity by driving past someone so obviously in need?

“I’m going back,” I said. “Let’s make sure everything’s okay.” Lois didn’t object.

Minutes later I was back at the parking lot. The car was still blocking traffic. I pulled up next to the driver’s side window. Now I could clearly see a woman behind the wheel. I motioned for her to roll down her window, but she stared back at me hesitantly. I got it. I’m a big black guy with a beard, in a community where African Americans are definitely a minority. Besides, hadn’t Lois and I just minutes before been afraid to approach the driver ourselves? Finally, the woman cracked the window.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She was young, maybe 35 or 40, but the worry lines that creased her pale face aged her by a decade. “I ran out of gas,” she said. “I’ve got groceries in the back, but my car won’t start.”

Horns blared all around us. I was in the incoming lane, so we blocked traffic in both directions. Not good. “I’ll park and come back, and help push your car to a gas station.”

“Thanks,” the woman said, her voice choking. “It’s just that I spent my last dollar on groceries.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll figure it out.” I pulled off before the other drivers became even more heated. I felt for the woman, and a glance at my wife said she did too. There had been times when Lois and I had to choose between buying groceries and paying bills, an especially difficult decision with three children to feed.

Halfway into the lot, I was hit with the reality of what I was in for. I had a bad knee, possibly facing surgery. No way could I push even a small car alone. After finding a parking space, I hopped out and made my way back to the woman, looking for someone I could recruit to help me push her car. I didn’t hold out much hope.

I saw a big white guy in a car waiting to exit. “Hey,” I said, rapping on his passenger window. He stared at me for a second, then rolled down the window. I pointed to the stalled car. “Can you help me give her a push?”

He looked at his watch. “Sure,” he said, getting out of his car. “I’m Fred. Let’s do it.” To my relief, Fred had a plan. “Let’s get her onto level ground,” he said, blowing on his hands to warm them. “Maybe the gas will even out enough to get her to that station.” He jerked his chin to a station at the top of a hill at the far end of the parking lot.

At the stranded car I asked the woman to shift her car into neutral. The gearshift wouldn’t budge. “I think my battery must be dead too,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” What now?

“You fellas need help?” The voice came from behind me. Turning, I saw a tall black man get out of an antique Chevy flatbed. He ambled toward us, rubbing the peppered stubble on his chin. “Hi. I’m Josh,” he said.

“You don’t happen to have a gas can in there, do you?” I asked. He didn’t, but he did have something else we needed—jumper cables.

Josh directed traffic, while Fred and I hooked up the stalled Kia to the Chevy truck. The woman turned the key. The engine chugged but didn’t turn over. Luckily, the charge gave it just enough juice to move the gearshift into neutral.

Together, we slowly pushed the car into the slowest lane of traffic and headed to a different station, one that wasn’t uphill. Cars zoomed past us, honking. “This isn’t how I planned to spend my morning,” Fred said.

“This isn’t even the grocery we usually go to!” I told the guys. We all had a laugh. I pushed past the twinge in my knee, feeling good about what we were doing. Not that I could take any credit for being here; I’d been directed. But that too was part of the Christmas story.

Josh gestured toward the parade of cars angrily passing us. “Yeah, it’s too easy to get caught up in all the holiday madness.” We got to the station in good cheer, and I paid to put a few gallons of gas in the Kia. This time, with an additional jump, the car started.

“I don’t know how to thank you all,” the woman said. “Merry Christmas.” She’d pulled the hoodie back from her face, and while the circle that traced her head wasn’t exactly a halo, I had no doubt she’d been heaven-sent. The guys and I went back to the grocery store parking lot, and I returned to Lois. I knew we’d all have a great day.

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