Closed or Open: A True Story

I collected and put away today’s yield from the home garden. Four turnips and a radish. Still waiting on most of the winter plants to start producing, and it’s a first season growing everything from seed, so there’s a lot that could still go wrong in the garden.

Left the house, and started walking to my errands, when I heard some noise across the street. The new neighbor. He was looking at the ground and didn’t notice me.

I wasn’t sure what to do. By that I do NOT mean I didn’t know how to say hello or otherwise greet someone. I mean, I didn’t know if I “should.” What with Covid, social distancing, masks, etc. Besides, he seemed preoccupied, and I didn’t want to bother him.

I told myself, “He’s probably not interested in meeting anyone right now. People can be so unpredictable. You just never know when things will go wrong. I’ll just keep to myself for now. Chat things up another time.”

I’d been telling myself this sort of thing for so long, decades really, that I didn’t realize I was doing it again. Only noticed something was wrong when I felt the familiar experience of my heart closing out another person.

I was only aware of feeling no connection and that my heart wasn’t open to forging one, for the moment, and didn’t realize why or how it happened.

It struck me how odd this was, since the main reason my wife and I moved to our neighborhood was the sense of community. We still embraced the community, but for some reason I’ve found myself feeling more and more closed off.

And so I walked, face forward and focused on the errands I had to run. Another time in life I chose completing tasks to socializing.

“Socializing.” That’s how my teachers would have described it.

And my Dad would have corrected me for assuming the neighbor wouldn’t want to meet.

He’d have said, “Don’t ‘borrow a jack.’”

**

There’s a story about a travelling salesperson whose car got a flat tire in the middle of the night, and “in the middle of nowhere.” Anyone who has broken down in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere knows how this situation looks and feels.

Popped the trunk, moved those piles of promotional flyers into the backseat, and grabbed the spare tire. Inflated and in good working order.

Pure relief. “Excellent!”

Then looked for the jack.

And remembered having loaned it to a friend and forgotten to ask for it back.

“Damnit!”

This story was originally told me in the 1970s, long before cell phones, so the sales rep didn’t have the option of calling AAA. To make the story current, let’s just say there were no bars.

Set off on foot and, within a couple miles, was muttering, “No one lives around here. Why am I even walking? Not like waiting by the car would do any good. The next town isn’t for another five miles.”

And then saw, in the distance, a light.

A porchlight.

And practically sprinted towards it.

“Thank goodness!”  the rep thought. “Just gotta borrow a jack, get the tire on, then I can DRIVE the jack back in to this place and be at the hotel by three. Get four solid hours of sleep and I’ll be good to go for tomorrow’s meetings. Oh, damnit! Dinner meeting! Gonna have to pound the caffeine because I’ll be dragging by then. Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s get that jack first.”

The rep walked closer to the house, and got more and more lost in thought. “I don’t even see a car. Is that a garage? Only one car? In the garage? What makes me think they’ll want to help me anyway? I’d HATE being woken in the middle of the night. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m all about helping my fellow person, but you just never know who you can trust.”

Approached the front door. “Oh, they probably don’t even have a jack! Oh, damnit! What choice do I have here?”

Knocked.

(Inside, a nurse, just home from a double shift, was relieved for the distraction. The nurse, exhausted but too tired to sleep, thought, “I wonder if this is another flat tire. Seems like they ought to fix that highway. This is the fourth one this year. By the time I get this one on their way, I should be ready to sleep.”)

“Even if they have a jack, they’re not gonna want to go all the way into the garage and through all that trouble! They’re gonna hate me. They’re not gonna have a jack. What am I doing out here? I’m gonna wake this person up and they might shoot me!”

The door opens.

Nurse: “Hi, are you okay? Can I help you?”

Sales Rep: “I don’t need your stupid jack anyway!! Go to hell!”

And the sales rep ran off into the night, looking for another house where, maybe, the homeowner would be more gracious…

**

My Dad would have said, “Don’t borrow a jack.”

Idea being that you get in trouble when you start trying to predict the future, assume the future will be bad, develop self-inflicted mind-reading skills and tell yourself that other people will be unkind, convince yourself that the imaginary future is real, and then act like everything has already gone wrong.

The problem with any memory of my father is that the warm, loving feelings are always accompanied by the memory that he, my hero, passed away when I was seven years old. It was not unexpected, though it was unthinkable, for most who knew him. For me, though, the reality of his passing didn’t hit me until the burial.

**

For a seven-year old, Daddy was still Daddy, it’s just that his hands were cold, and his skin looked weird, and he smelled different, and his body felt stiff and not welcoming like before. But even at the burial, things felt strange, but the family was actually still together. It’s just that the rest of us were on these chairs under these umbrellas, and a lot of people were crying. And Daddy was just right there.

Until that casket started to be lowered. And suddenly, it seemed, I was the only one who was panicking. Because I knew what it was like to be buried when we went to the beach and dug big sand holes and got in them and had our brothers pile the sand back on top of us. But we could breathe when we did that. This was him in a closed box going all the way under! That couldn’t happen! That would change everything! And everyone else was just sitting there crying! Why was no one DOING ANYTHING ABOUT THIS!!!” And I grabbed two handfuls of the casket and tried to yank it backwards.

And of course the casket went in the ground. And my seven-year-old heart, with its memory of feeling safe in the arms of a strong, loving father, got swallowed up in grief and despair.

And the safe feelings were replaced by terror in the face of the uncertain future. Problems were always going to be there, as were hard feelings. And it became tough to tell which ones you could solve and which ones were going to open like a whole in the ground and take everything you loved with them.

**

And there, on Dale Street, I reminded myself, again, that I shouldn’t borrow a jack. Maybe next time the neighbor would be glad to meet me.  

I kept moving forward, until I’d done everything on my list and felt that surge of relief.

“Done.”

Left the last store and saw a guy, standing about twenty feet back, unkempt, looking for eye contact. In the blink of an eye, I experienced a version of, “Damnit. He’s gonna ask for money. And I’m barely getting by here. I don’t want to be uncharitable, but where do I draw the line? But if I was in his shoes, what would I do? I have to keep telling myself I can’t end up in his shoes. The alternative is too scary.”

And closed my heart. Again.

On my way home, I was walking west on Grape Street, in South Park, towards the four-way stop at Grape and Dale Streets. Diagonally across the intersection, heading east, was a dog enthusiastically walking her person. Probably coming from Grape Street Dog Park.

Smiled at the dog’s zest for life.

Got to the intersection and was aware of a small white car alongside me. Took a peek over my shoulder and saw the driver, a small, bookish-looking dude, was angling to make a left, not a right turn, so I kept going west and took another peek over my shoulder to confirm the car turned south on Dale.

The car moved forward and turned directly into the walker’s path until the guy stepped back and pulled his dog to him. The car kept going south on Dale. He was just feet from the guy.

The walker yelled, “Hey!!! There’s a fucking stop sign there, asshole!!! You almost hit my fucking dog!!! What the fuck is wrong with you!!!”

I could understand the guy’s anger. Nothing like a big dose of fear to bring out really serious rage. This guy was still reacting to that split-second fear-induced image of somebody callously running over his dog.

Though, I wonder if there were circumstances when the guy would have been just as scared, just as rattled, but not reacted the way he did.

  • What if it was a vehicle driven, slowly, by visibly large, angry-looking people brandishing weapons?
  • What if it was a police cruiser?
  • What if it was someone he recognized as a close friend?

Yeah, “what if” can lead to dangerous and academic questions. And yet…

The walker continued east across the intersection but was still yelling and gesturing at the car.

The driver slowed his car to a stop about twenty feet from the intersection and opened his door.

“Oh, crap,” I thought, and prepared to run for cover or break up a fight.

“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” asked the driver.

“There’s a fucking stop sign there! You almost hit my fucking dog! What the fuck is wrong with you!”

“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” asked the driver. He wasn’t being a smartass. His voice sounded genuinely concerned that he might have hurt the guy.

“Yes, obviously! I’m fine. I’m just pissed off.” was the guy’s admirably honest response. His voice dropped several levels of intensity. Now he sounded more hurt than angry.

And in a split second I remembered all the times that I’ve messed up, all the mistakes I’ve made. Then I felt bad for the driver.

And the driver’s tone made it clear that, whatever his motives were a few seconds before, he was acting out of genuine concern for the walker.

How many other situations can you imagine, or have you seen, when the driver wasn’t so gracious? When the driver, or “offender” of any kind, decided that even if they had been wrong in the first place, the other person didn’t have a right to call them names and be rude, so they yelled back, and more names got thrown around, and things escalated…

In this case, though, the driver was focused on the walker’s well-being and clearly wanted to make things right. He turned the car around, pulled it over, and got out to apologize in person.

It moved me.

So, with a lighter step, I decided to enjoy my walk a little longer and opted for a different route home. 

I kept hearing the driver’s humble request for forgiveness.

“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

It touched my heart.

“Please forgive me,” I said to no one at all. And felt enormous relief. And more relaxed.

“Please forgive me,” I repeated. And my heart became even lighter.

As I got home, a couple neighbors, names unknown but that I’ve seen for a couple years, were socially-distanced chatting across the street.

“Hey, Happy Holidays!” they yelled.

“Thank you! You, too!” I replied.

And then had a thought.

“Hey, would you like some turnips?”

5 thoughts on “Closed or Open: A True Story

      1. Hey Sarah. So glad the story spoke to you! Thank you for the nice feedback! And the neighborly gratitude is mutual!

        Like

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