My Free Ride

“How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, His precepts!”
– Benjamin Franklin

Melvin and Caralyn are in their late forties and are married. Melvin was born in Detroit but moved to Minneapolis in 1987, just in time to become a Twins fan before the World Series. In low light he looks an awful lot like Al Sharpton, with the same frizzy triangular hairstyle and high-arching eyebrows. Melvin met Caralyn sometime in the early 90s and the two have been together since. They are both out of work, which makes filling up your gas tank a precarious proposition, much less having a Merry consumerist Christmas. They were lost on their way to Golden Valley this morning, off to Caralyn’s sister’s for a Christmas Eve lunch, driving on fumes westward on University Avenue when they spotted a man walking hurriedly in the same direction. Caralyn said to Melvin, “It’s sixteen below zero. Maybe we should help him out.” Melvin agreed, and pulled his green Mazda coupe alongside the hooded figure. Caralyn rolled her window down and called out, “Sir, you want a ride? We’ll take you anywhere you need to go.” That hooded pedestrian they wer offering to help? That was me.

I studied the car carefully before stepping towards it. If we can define a hypocrite as someone who holds themselves to a lower standard than he holds others, I think it’s fair to call me a hypocrite. I give out a lot of advice I don’t follow myself: look no further than my friendships with ex-girlfriends. Another piece of advice I would give, in general, is this. Don’t take rides from strangers. Especially strangers in coupes: you can’t barrel roll out of a moving car like an 80s action hero if you don’t have a door to open.
But I don’t always follow my own advice.
And I had missed my bus, and was about to miss another.
And it was, after all, sixteen degrees below zero. Beardcicles were forming underneath my scarf.
I climbed in the back seat.

From a narrative perspective, I’d love to say something eventful happened. But nothing did. Melvin brought me from point A to point B, making plenty of conversation on the way. He taught me about the Alberta Clipper. He talked about growing up as one of thirteen kids and how it took two cartons of eggs to make breakfast. “That’s how I knew my momma loved my dad. She kept poppin’ ‘em out.” He, like Tom, asked me if I was single. “Single as they come,” I said.
“Yeah, boy. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Caralyn punched him in the arm. “Melvin! Don’t say that! I bet it’s lonely this time of year.”
I didn’t reply to that. It wouldn’t make anyone happier to hear what I’ve got waiting for me on Christmas Eve is an empty house and a bottle of Scotch.

Melvin never asked me for money. I offered to buy them breakfast, but he declined. I offered to put some gas in his tank, but he declined again. The whole ride, my eyes were on the needle of his fuel gauge, dancing in the red. When we got to my building, I pulled out all the cash from my wallet – $8 is hardly a generous Yuletide offering – and I laid it on the backseat without a word. Hopefully when they found it they weren’t insulted. I don’t know. But it’s nice to be reminded that you don’t have to know someone to make them feel cared for on Christmas. And it’s nice to know that there’s at least one person in the Twin Cities who will risk running his tank dry as a chalkboard in order to bring a stranger to work, just so he can escape the cold a little while.

Al Sharpton
Unrelated Al Sharpton Publicity Still


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