The following story is true:
There were five of us in a car heading for a weekend at the shore—my husband at the time, the couple who owned the shore house, and a friend of theirs. All of us in a late model something, shiny and impressive. It was off-season by months and the roads were fairly deserted. We were all a bit edgy and nervous as we’d run smack into a wall of fog in the Pine Barrens, listened to the cracking of the cars as they plowed into each other, the glass shattering around us. We made it through the fog safely, miraculously, though we heard later that one young man had died.
It was late at night. For reasons that I do not remember, we pulled off the highway and found ourselves on deserted one-lane roads. Possibly someone’s idea of a short cut. Perhaps we felt safer driving at a slower speed after the fog incident. Before the days of cell phones and GPS, shortcuts often led somewhere you didn’t want to be. The gas tank light flashed on, and I wondered how five intelligent people could get in a car for a two-hour drive without sufficient gasoline. Maybe cheap New Jersey gas had seemed worth the risk.
We passed empty car lots and shuttered businesses. It was hard to tell if they existed during the summer season or had been long abandoned. Either way, there were no gas stations for miles. Some of us joked about the weekend accommodations being less than satisfactory. The driver did not laugh.
Finally, we spotted a gas station and truly limped into it, all five of us shrugging forward in our seats to keep enough momentum going to get us to the pumps.
But the station was closed.
Didn’t matter if it was off-season closed, or dead to the world closed, it was not offering any gas. Barely a car passed us as we sat on the station lot and debated our options. They were woefully few.
After a while, a ratty car pulled up next to us. Four young men jumped out and approached the driver’s side door. Instantly, we all hit the door locks. Anxiety shot through. I was trembling hard.
“You all out of gas?” one asked. We debated the correct answer. Appear more vulnerable than we already were or try to bluff our way out of whatever they had in store for us. Our driver lowered the window an inch, smiled, tried the pleasant approach.“Yeah, and the ladies back there are getting pretty pissed off at us about it.”
“Hold on a second,” he said and ran to his car, popped the trunk, and then came back with a sloshing gas can. “I got some.”
He poured the contents into our tank and then refused the money we offered. They waved as they got back in their car, wishing us a wonderful weekend.
Did I mention that the four young men were African American?
Would I have been as frightened if the men were white? On that deserted lot, we were vulnerable to anyone with bad intentions. But the episode stayed with me all this time, mostly I suspect, because the men were black and I was ashamed of my reaction.
There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the state of race relations in America. I hope things are better than they were back then. I’m not in a position to weigh in on that. I do know that there are times when your prejudices surface from somewhere deep no matter how much you believe you are colorblind.
Sometimes you just have to work harder to lessen its grip.