Though I grew up in the suburbs, my prep was in the heart of Philly. Every morning I dragged myself onto a short bus that transported me into the gritty city. It was an added expense for my parents but there wasn’t really any other option. Well fine, public transportation existed but it would have involved transfers - two buses, one trolley and a layover at an unsavory depot in a part of town known for crack dens and drive-by shootings. Jewish white girls from the suburbs didn’t do public transportation let alone public transportation that required a transfer. My parents paid the fee for the private bus and that was that.
When I landed at Smith, I relied on the PVTA bus to get between the area towns. It was free and consistent and after midnight, if you drunkenly flirted with the driver, he inevitably went the extra quarter mile past the last stop to let you off at the Quad. Technically PVTA stood for Pioneer Valley Transit Authority but area students renamed it Pushing Virgins Toward Amherst. As a Smith Alum who started her academic career a virgin and ended it as, well, not, I can vouch for the accuracy of the second interpretation. Anyway, if I wanted to play beer pong with UMass boys, I grabbed the bus. If I wanted to see a movie at the mall, I grabbed the bus. If I wanted to attend a lecture at Amherst, I grabbed the bus. It was never as quick as hitching a ride with a car owning pal but it was more than adequate when looking to travel between two places.
After college, I enrolled in law school and for the first two summers of the program I clerked for a city judge. Her chambers were at the Criminal Justice Center and while I owned a car and there was a well priced parking lot two blocks from the office, I preferred the train. It was a twenty minute journey each way and it afforded me just enough time to disappear with a book. I’d scoot in next to the wall, curl tight against the scratched window and melt into the story I was reading. I savored those twenty minute rides more than any other part of the day.
When law school came to an end, so did my use of the Philadelphia public transportation system. If I had to be in the city, I drove. Prices rose, quality of the ride dropped and in the end it was more efficient to rely on my car. Sure, if I was in a pinch and needed to get to Amtrak or the airport, I hopped a train. Otherwise, I dropped into the front seat of my car and coasted the roadways in my auto-cocoon, shielded from the tight squeeze of strangers on rush hour trains.
So here’s the thing – whenever I’m idling at a light in the suburbs and I see a woman waiting for the bus, I want to offer a ride. At least a ride as far as I’m going. I glance over at my empty passenger seat, my Prada tote on the floor leaning against the console. I peer in the rear view mirror and scan a backseat housing nothing more than a pile of Business Weeks and collection of baseball caps from places like Nantucket and the US Open and Cap Juluca. The cavernous space of my car taunts me, highlighting the indulgences I usually overlook. Then I shyly glimpse at the person patiently waiting for the bus. The bus that I know is nowhere nearby because I just came from that direction. As I wait for the light to turn, digesting all that surrounds me, I toss around a temptation to roll down the window and offer a ride. Am I the only person who struggles with this idea?
A few years ago, I acted on my impulse. I was a mile into my city bound journey and stopped at a light a few blocks shy of my parent’s house. The sky was a somber gray and large droplets of rain pummeled the earth. There on the corner, tucked against a stone wall to avoid being sprayed by puddles, was an older Haitian woman I recognized as the nanny for a local family. I’d seen her before a few months earlier as I paused in front of my parent’s house to let her and a child pass by the driveway. She was casually pushing a stroller with one hand and loosely guiding a tiny tot clumsily walking beside her with the other. Through the crack in my window passed a soft breeze and the sound of her voice as she scooted the child along. I observed the calm expression cast across her weathered face, the wrinkles somehow conveying a motherly warmth. When I glanced through my rain splattered window, the dull hum of my idling engine matching the hum of thoughts in my head, I recognized the nanny as the woman waiting for the bus. And so I pressed down on the button and leaned across the passenger seat.
“Can I give you a ride?” I yelled out through the downpour, my neck craning and my eyes squinting against the droplets coming into the car.
The nanny lifted her gaze in my direction.
“You work near my parent’s house,” I offered, the statement an attempt to soften the fear between strangers. “I’m heading into town anyway. Get in.”
She hesitantly peeled herself off the wall, released the door handle and slid into the empty seat.
“You work near my parent’s house,” I repeated as I pulled up on the button and closed her window. “I recognize you from the neighborhood.”
I reached for the radio knob and lowered the volume, leaving a hint of noise but nothing decipherable. The light turned green and I shifted my foot off the brake and onto the accelerator. My passenger clipped her seatbelt and pressed the wrinkles out of her damp skirt. She cautiously dabbed at the rain that had gotten in with her. She crinkled the corner of her sleeve, cinching it between pinched fingers and gliding the cloth over the door frame.
“Don’t worry about that,” I shooed with a gentle giggle.
She kept dabbing until she was content her presence hadn’t left a mark. And then she finally said something, her throaty voice and thick accent curving the words that fell from her mouth.
“The rain sure is coming down hard. Thanks for the ride.”
We drove together for a few miles. I asked superficial questions to fill the quiet spanning between us. Where she worked. Where she lived. How long she had been in the area. As we neared a bus depot, she let me know I had taken her far enough. I pulled over to the curb, released the locks and wished her safe travels home. She still had two more buses to catch. She offered a soft thank you and then slipped out onto the rain soaked sidewalk. I watched her disappear in the crowd of umbrellas before pulling back into traffic, weaving between cars and carelessly splashing through puddles.
I never saw that nanny again. Maybe she stopped caring for those kids. Maybe she found a better gig on the other side of town. Or perhaps she still works near my parents but she and I have never managed to again end up at that corner together. But no matter what, every time I pull up to a light and see a woman waiting for the bus, I think about her. I think about that one time I acted on my impulse and it worked. No one got hurt. Nothing got destroyed. If anything, my faith in humanity was strengthened. Perhaps hers as well. So whenever I linger at a red light, I am always tempted to lower the window and offer a ride. Always. But I never do. And for whatever reason, it saddens me.