Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rest-Area Gypsies

I calculate that I have crossed I-80 in Pennsylvania, from the Delaware Water Gap to New Castle, about eighty times since I started driving. This past weekend, I saw a few things I’d never seen before.

One was a lineup of three or four police cars on the shoulder, all with their lights flashing, while, a few yards up the road, a couple embraced. (Had they just had a narrow escape?)

I was playing leapfrog with an army convoy: I’d pass them, then stop for coffee or gas, and they would get ahead of me on the road, so I’d pass them again. At one point, the convoy and I all got off at the same truck stop (I tried not to get behind them in line at the cash register), and I overheard one of the soldiers say into his cell phone, “I can crank it up and drive it, but it’s smoking like there’s no tomorrow.”

At the same pit stop (at the sign of the giant percolator, Sapp Bros.), as I pulled off the ramp there was a van stopped at the curve, with a big plastic gas tank sitting next to it and a cardboard sign that said “Need Gas/Cash.” I stopped, thinking that I could at least drive them and their tank to the gas station and back. A man approached, and said someone had already given him gas. “We run outta cash,” he said. He and his family—he motioned to two large young people lolling near the car—were heading home to Virginia, and they had some seven hundred miles to go. I gave him twenty dollars, and said, “That’ll get you to your next pit stop, anyway.”

I filled my own tank, and as I was getting back on the highway I couldn’t help but notice that the man and his kids were still there, flagging down cars. Sap or Good Samaritan? I will never know, but the whole enterprise did have a Faulknerian flavor to it.

Then, on the way home, I was just pulling out of one of the official rest areas when a clean-cut young man, followed by a woman, waved me down. I thought he was going to tell me I’d left my wallet at the vending machines or something. “I’m really embarrassed,” he began, “but if you could spare a few dollars for gas ... We need about fifty or sixty dollars to get home." I already had my hand in my wallet and was giving him a twenty when he added, "Our parents will pay you back double.” His girlfriend, or sister, seemed very grateful.

It seemed odd that two such different kinds of people would have the same problem on opposite sides of I-80. I got to thinking: Who takes off on a trip without enough money for gas? I think I'm going to have to go with sap.

No comments: