At the gas station late this afternoon, I swiped my debit card at the gas pump and shoved the nozzle into my car to fill up the tank. I was in the process of unlocking the doors to wait inside my car, out of the rain, while the gas finished pumping, when I heard a tentative voice behind me say, "Ma'am?"
I turned, already amused. Recent conversations with my co-workers have enlightened me to the fact that I get mistaken for seventeen more often than not, and no one calls me "Ma'am," except sometimes the boy around my own age who bags my groceries at the local Safeway, something that never fails to make me laugh. Perhaps its the hijab, or the fact that too much of my wardrobe consists of black.
I looked expectantly at the boys in the small, shabby car parked on the other side of my gas pump, stepping across the divider as they leaned out their windows towards me. They couldn't have been much older than me. "We were wondering if you could help us out with gas," they said. "We've been waiting here for a long time."
I had just driven over from the post office, where I had made out a money order for $165 and mailed it out. Yes, it had put a big, fat dent in my paycheck, but the very fact I could afford to do so spoke volumes about the difference between me and these boys.
"Our car got stolen on Christmas, and we just got it back." They pointed out the cracks in the windshield, now covered with pieces of tape, tracing the lines with their fingers. I nodded, reminded of the Ray Bradbury short story I had lain in bed reading until late last night, entitled "The Beggar on O'Connell Bridge," which everyone should read, by the way.
"Hang on a sec," I said, and stepped back to my own car, where I flipped through my wallet for cash. Returning to their car, I handed the bills through the window. "Is that going to be enough? Are you traveling to somewhere?"
"Chico," said one of them. "We're supposed to meet family there."
"Oh, okay," I said, wincing slightly. I remember Chico from when I was little: Butte County, cliffs, red rocks and bluffs. Just past a small town called Paradise.
They peered at me anxiously. "Is that far?"
"It's up north," I replied. "I'm not sure exactly how far, but it's a few hours away, I think."
They glanced at each other, and their faces fell.
"Okay," they said. "Thank you."
"Drive carefully," I said. "Be safe." The mantra my friends have unanimously adopted from one another, words they always say to me when they know I'm about to hit the road.
My pump clicked, releasing the automatic catch on the nozzle, the gas tank now full. It was my cue to go. I didn't notice until I had almost turned back to my own pump that there was a young woman also in the car with them, wrapped in blankets in the backseat, staring expressionlessly out the window.
I ended up spending $31.57 on just over fifteen gallons of gas for my car. The guys in the next car smiled and raised their hands in thanks as I drove away from the pump.
I furiously calculated it in my head while driving away: My car does about 25 miles/gallon so, if I used that as a standard and gas was selling at $2.01/gallon today, I had given them enough for several gallons, but was it enough to get them to where they needed to go? Halfway to the grocery store (yes, again), I realized Chico was about 150 miles north, and they would have needed at least half a tank to get there. I cursed myself for not having given them more. In my rush to be helpful, to give them something, anything, I hadn't given them nearly enough.
For godssake, I've been driving around town with my gas needle pointing to "Empty" for an entire week, the orange light flashing in warning every few minutes. It's been my own personal form of amusement, since I've been on break from school for a week now, to see how long I could go without filling my car up with gas. With all the gas I saved on my own car during the week, I could have just used my debit card to fill up their tank instead.
I wandered through the produce section of my local grocery store, bantering with the young clerk who asked me, by name, how I was doing that day. "I love how everyone knows my name around here!" I laughed, and he joked, "Yes, well, you've made VIP status, you know." They know me because they know my brother, who works there as well, but his comment was a startling, sobering reminder of the Zaytuna dinner I attended in the South Bay last week, where one of the speakers asked us to re-think the weight of material possessions and social hierarchies in our daily lives. Do we work only so that one day we, too, can achieve VIP status? So that we, too, can buy luxury cars and large houses and be photographed in the company of rich and powerful people?
Who do we want to be, and who are the people we are standing next to? And are we standing next to the right people?
There was a feeling of déjà vu as I walked out of the grocery store with my $35 worth of purchases, sighing inwardly at the nonstop torrents of rain. Only as I was placing the bags of groceries in the trunk of my car did I remember the Salvation Army man from this time last year.
"We've been waiting here for a long time."
I wondered how long exactly they had been waiting, the desperately polite boys and the silent girl with the blanket in their dilapidated car in a gas station where I had been parked in front of a Mercedes SUV and right across from a freakin' Jaguar. Down the street from the post office where I had had to outmaneuver Porsches and Hummers in a cutthroat search for a parking spot. A few blocks down again from the bustling downtown area that boasts a Tiffany&Co. jewelry store. For godssake, there's a freakin' Tiffany store in my hometown now (the height of ostentation, if you ask me), and yet, if you make the effort to look, you can still find homeless people that talk to themselves on the street corners here, and boys that beg for gas money because the gas-guzzling SUV and sports car owners are too preoccupied with their own VIP status and shiny automobiles.
But only if you make the effort to look.
Would it have hurt the people in this city to have looked? They could well afford to.
But what am I doing, how much am I doing, am I myself doing enough?
I drove slowly through the curving, winding roads to my home on the hill, in a quiet, beautiful neighborhood where it is not uncommon to find houses selling for anywhere from $700,000 to $1 million. I often fail to notice the affluence in the neighborhood itself because I spent the naive years of my childhood here, in our comparatively modest house, and then returned to the same neighborhood after several years away. Six years later, my eyes are still clouded by my childhood memories here. It's difficult for me to understand how these simple ranch houses, built in the 1950s, are worth so much now, and even harder yet to acknowledge that I've learned to accept the wealth in this city, even if I do roll my eyes at it continually.
I may be annoyed at the people of my hometown right now, but I've always tried to be harsher with myself, because at least I know the context and blessings of my own life, even if I can only speculate at other peoples'. This evening, my father bought me an absolutely gorgeous desk for my room because he feels I spend too many late nights studying on campus and driving home exhausted. I came home again and ate a hot dinner with my family, people I am blessed to have in my life even though they drive me insane. Tomorrow I go back to work in downtown Sacramento, earning a relatively competitive paycheck for a college student, filling up my gas tank whenever I need.
I thought of yesterday, stopping for dinner in the wine country of Napa Valley, in Calistoga, CA, to be exact – home to mineral water, spas, mud baths, and, yes, lots of rich people – on the last leg of our roadtrip while heading back home to the Bay. I absently munched on french fries, absorbed in the flashing headlines on the television across the room as the grim-faced news anchors discussed the heartbreaking casualties as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in South and Southeast Asia. Someone working there saw the dismayed expressions on our faces and turned up the volume on the TV so that we could better hear the news. I translated for my mother ("Thousands of people died, Ummy. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka and India and Thailand and even Somalia and…"), giving her specific numbers as they flashed across the screen. "Ten thousand people, Ummy!"
The death toll is at over fifty thousand now.
I watched the faces of the people on the television screen. They looked dazed and broken, shell-shocked and shattered. What do you do when your world literally falls down in ruins around you?
And what am I doing, how much am I doing, am I myself doing enough?