On the drive from California to Florida, I had plenty of time to contemplate. Part of why I like to drive. It gives you “think time” where airports just give you hustle and grief.
So I was driving through West Texas and stopped at some roadside “last chance” for gas. Somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio ( in that part where, if you see gas, you’d better buy it… Fort Stockton I think it was) and at about dawn had pulled into gas station at a roadside hotel row / gas station or two. There was a “Bag Lady” with some things in a shopping cart. The morning was a bit cold and crisp.
I’d parked the car off to the side and made a sandwich. (It’s easy to do, faster than fast food, and I can get it at 5 am by the side of the road in West Texas where for hours on end you can not get restaurant food…) So I’m walking around with “2 days of non-stop travel” on me, eating a sandwich. I’ve just woken up from a ‘nap’ about 20 miles back, so my hair is a mess… You can see where this is going…
So the Bag Lady (looked late 40’s or early 50s to me, would be nice looking if she had some time in a salon / hotel shower, and perhaps a bit of time with a dentist) wanders over into the front of the store for a moment, then back. I ask “You hungry?”. ( I’d slipped a $5 bill in my back pocket planning to hand it to her if she said yes…) Her answer? “No, just cold.” Delivered with a bit of a devilish grin. And I realized that after 2 days stuffed in a car and with “pillow hair”, and eating what was clearly two slices of bread I’d stuffed something between; I probably didn’t look all that much better than she did… and she saw me as a bit of a “kindred spirit”. But one with a Very Old Car to live in.
So I said something “bright” like “Well, sun comes up soon”. Then she asked if I had a cigarette ( I don’t smoke ) and I realized I was not going to hand her the Fiver as it would just go immediately to cigarettes.
Further down the road, at a truck stop, I was filling the Benz with gas. In the wash room I fixed the “pillow hair” and took a toothbrush to the sandwich remains in my teeth. Next to me a similarly disheveled trucker was shaving in the sink. Actions that in a ‘typical’ restaurant or gas station would be seen as “bum” like. Normal in a truck stop. I thought of buying a shower (which they have for a modest price) but decided to ‘press on’ instead. Only me in the car, and 2 hours is 2 hours. The shuttle might launch on time…
(This isn’t a picture of Choctaw Beach, but one nearby)
So the next day, I’m at Choctaw Beach Florida, and decide to take a ‘bath’ in the ocean. All the time pondering: What’s the difference between a ‘bag lady’, a trucker needing a shave, and me?
Looked at from the outside, we were all a bit dirty, unkempt, and had no home. We’d all lived in the same clothes for a couple of days and need a bath and a meal. What makes one honorable and the other not?
The bag lady was unemployed, while the trucker has a job. But I don’t have a job. It’s not just “no visible means of support”. We all needed to brush our teeth at the sink in the gas station.
The difference was that the trucker and I could buy a shower if we wanted one. It was a question of choice.
In Mississippi, I’d walked (barefoot) into a Texaco station looking ‘well worn’ and unshaven for 2 1/2 days and with the hair a mess. I wear “old” clothes when doing a marathon drive session. No need to wear the good stuff if it’s just me, the car seat, and a potential lay on the ground tire change or car repair… Got a bit of the ‘look over’… and it all immediately evaporates when the American Express Gold Card hits the counter. “Fill up on 4” and all is forgiven. Off to the wash room. Pick up an armload of snacks, bottled water, and back to the register. I’m a “bag lady” with an American Express… that’s honorable… somehow.
So it occurred to me that the difference is nothing particularly physical about us.
It’s nothing particularly in how we choose to live (we were all three a bit crumpled and with some road grime about us).
It’s that fact that some of us COULD choose.
I could choose. In Mississippi I was near my limit and looking longingly at the hotel row signs. Dreaming of a warm bed, hot shower, bit of time in the heated pool. Thinking of that plastic token that made it all just a single decision away… That I decided to go for ‘best time to Florida’ instead meant I had the power of choice. Red Roof Inn or No Roof, my choice.
The trucker could choose. Perhaps not as many choices (depending on how his business was doing, and if his employment schedule allowed – more constraints than on me, but still not too many). He could chose to wash in the sink, or buy a shower. To eat a sandwich on the run, or have a dinner in the diner. Motel 6 or 6 more hours.
The bag lady could not choose. She would stay cold and dirty until the sun rose. Then she would get warm. I knew she would love the chance of a warm hotel room and a hot shower. Would love to run her things through a washer. Take off the knit cap and comb her hair. But she could not choose. She didn’t have the magic plastic…
So we vilify the person least able to ‘fix’ their problem. And we let those with the most ability to fix it, but who chose not to do so, have a free pass. Just backwards.
And in the end, I realized that when I’m “pushing it” on a mad dash coast to coast, I’m just a trucker without a load and with no job. A “bag lady” with an Amex Gold…
But folks see the Mercedes at the pump and the card on the counter and smile to greet me when I walk into the store…
And I wonder if there is not some way we could provide a place for a meal, a shower, and a bit of time with the clothes washer, for folks ‘on the road’ but without a truck, or a bit of plastic? Is there not some way to give them “choice” too? And with it respectability? Would that be enough to make us even more “the same”?
Things I think about while driving…