20th Street’s Good Samaritan

Next time you run out of gas in Center City, look for the man with the reindeer.

My car went suddenly dead as I turned the corner at Chestnut onto 20th. It was rush hour.

I turned the ignition. It wanted to start, it sounded like it would, but it just wouldn’t.

I tried again. Nothing. And again.

The cars behind me showed no mercy. First there was one horn. Then there were 117.

A debilitating kind of discomfort seeps in when you feel helpless like this.

There’s no right move. You can’t think.

I kept turning the key.

The car was ten years old. It had been causing problems—brakes, electrical, tires.

Why was I always buying tires?

Suddenly a thump on the trunk. I turned around and this wiry guy, eyes wide as a slugger stepping in against Jamie Moyer, was flush up against my rear window. He had both hands pushed against the rear of my car.

“I’m going to push,” he shouted. “When I say go, pop the clutch, got it?”

He pushed. The car was rolling.

“Go!”

I popped. Nothing.

“Again!”

Nothing.

He pushed the car to a safe spot along 20th Street and came up to my window.

“You’re out of gas.”

“Really?”

“All it can be. Battery’s not dead. It should have kicked when you popped the clutch. It didn’t. No gas.”

It’s not impossible. The electrical problems had screwed up the gas gauge. It had been a guessing game for months how much gas was in the tank. I could have sworn there was plenty.

“I’m going to get gas. You stay here. I live on the street. I need you to watch my rain gear. It’s right there.”

He pointed to some stuff against a wall on the sidewalk.

I gave him a ten.

“All I need is a dollar.”

“Please, take the ten.”

He grabbed it and ran off.

I sat in my car, watching his stuff. People were walking past on the sidewalk. I started thinking, what if somebody ran off with his rain gear?

I had to put the stuff in my car.

When I bent over to get it, I saw it wasn’t rain gear at all.

It was a reindeer. A reindeer vase.

I’d clearly misheard the man.

The reindeer vase was filled with cards and papers. I’m guessing the cards and papers were valuable to him.

“Where’s my reindeer?”

He was back at my car window. He had a Coke bottle in one hand and a Big Gulp cup in the other. He had been to the service station at 22nd and Walnut.

You try to picture the walk back with the Coke bottle and the Big Gulp cup filled with gas. But you just can’t, maybe you just don’t want to.

“Reindeer is right here, next to me.”

“Good, pop the gas cap.”

A young guy starts crossing the street. He’s heading right for the gas tank. He’s smoking.

“Stop right there.”

My new friend holds up the cup and the bottle.

“Stop right there. Unless the day has come to meet your maker, friend.”

The young guy quickly scurries away.

He begins pouring the gas into the tank. It only takes a few minutes, but in those few minutes I learn a few things about my new friend. He’s got skills, for one. Mechanical skills, handyman skills, you wouldn’t believe. He has never begged for money and never will because people work hard for their money, especially these days, and his mother didn’t raise him that way. He likes helping, feeling useful, like he feels right now, in fact he looks for opportunities to be useful. That way maybe he can earn a dollar with his usefulness.

“Okay, now get in there,” he said, “and give it a try, should be good for you.”

He turned the bottle and the cup upside down to get rid of the last drops of gas.

I turned the key. The car started right up.

I handed my friend his reindeer and a few bills. He tucked the reindeer under his arm and put the bills in his pocket without looking. “Happy to help,” he said, disappearing into the crowd on the sidewalk.

A few minutes later, just as I hit Kelly Drive, it starts to rain, ever so gently, like it does every Spring.

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