Benjamin T. King: ‘Standing here hoping’

For the Monitor
Published: 12/7/2020 6:00:34 AM

The pandemic has totally cured me of my use of credit cards, since I won’t use them for anything other than airfare, hotel accommodations, and concert tickets.

But I refuse to use my debit card at the fuel pump for fear of fraud. So, the other night found me crinkling dollar bills of change into my wallet, as I walked from the gas station back to my car, through a rainy night. An unintended benefit of the COVID era? One cannot spend 30 dollars filling up one’s tank. At $1.91 a gallon, change will await you inside the station once your tank will take no more, even if the fuel light flashed when you pulled up to the pump.

When you’re shoving dollar bills into your wallet as you trudge across a darkened parking lot, it’s hard to deny that you have a dollar, when a voice is suddenly upon you, asking for one.

“Excuse me, sir?” the woman’s voice said, “Could you spare a dollar? I’ve run out of gas.”

The stories are always so obviously false, aren’t they? There wasn’t another car in sight. And I couldn’t have determined that she was a woman, but for the voice. A shape stood before me, cloaked in a parka unlike anything someone would wear to shield herself from autumn rains, but perhaps perfectly suited to hide in the light of fuel pumps before escaping into the night.

What do you do when confronted with such human desperation? It’s easy when you’re in your car, paused at a light while the peddler stands next to you on a median strip. You stare at the light, pretending not to notice the person, and then you hit the gas as soon as the light turns green.

But what do you do when you come face to face (or face to shroud) with that peddler, and the edge of that dollar bill the person craves hangs in your hand?

There once was a waitress, at the Friendly’s restaurant on Loudon Road where my onetime partner Meredith and I used to eat breakfast, who seemed a tad too fascinated by the apparatus I pulled from my bag to administer myself insulin before eating. “She probably used needles,” Meredith muttered.

“No!” I exclaimed. This woman was too vivacious, too happy. She was just curious about my issue.

But Meredith was always more perceptive than I, about some things. That waitress disappeared from Friendly’s, and nobody would ever explain why.

One arctic New Hampshire morning, a year or so after the waitress vanished from Friendly’s, I stepped up to the curb of that gas station, about to enter to prepay for my fuel, when she materialized from nowhere and hailed me.

“Hi, remember me?” she cried. Of course I did, though she seemed smaller than I remembered, her once wavy blond hair now tangled, her eyes darting left and right rather than fixing me with a smiling gaze as she had when taking my order for a ham-and-cheese omelet.

“Could you give me some money for gas?” she pleaded suddenly. “I’m just standing here hoping.” As always, the story made no sense. No car lurked in sight. The former waitress was all alone.

I tell stories as closely as I can to how they unfolded, but sometimes I must re-create the quotes. Not this one. I remember her saying, “I’m just standing here hoping” as vividly as though she had just uttered the words.

If I had cash in my pocket, I didn’t give it to her. I wanted to help her. So I told her to wait and turned my back on her as I disappeared inside the store.

“Hey, man,” I cried out to the clerk with whom I sometimes lingered discussing the Red Sox, as I pulled my phone from my pocket, “I’m going to call 911 for the woman outside. I think she needs help.”

My sports buddy didn’t share my altruistic instincts. “She’s out there again!” he thundered. He charged out the door. I wasn’t far behind. But she was gone, and I’ve never seen her again.

Which brings me to last night, when a cloaked figure asked me for a dollar for gas, for a car nowhere in sight.

I suppose I could have denied I held a dollar in my hand.

I also could have denied she existed, striding past her as though I hadn’t heard her, to the safety of my car.

“One dollar?” I asked the cloaked figure, as rain pelted us both.

“Two if you can spare it,” she said, the hope in her voice making me shudder more than the rain.

I handed her a dollar bill.

“Thank you, sir!” she cried.

Seconds later I sat behind the wheel of my car, scanning the parking lot. She had disappeared, just as surely as she would have done had I not given her the dollar.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I cannot say I felt good. Many in our midst still suffer, even if not from COVID. But recognizing she existed was better than pretending she wasn’t there.

(Benjamin T. King is a Concord resident and a partner at the Concord law firm Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C.)


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