Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

On the side of the road

Girl & Car, 1993
In the Spring of 1993, after several months of trying to get around Miami on Dade County's public transportation system, Jaime and I bought our first car. We were thrilled.  It was "previously owned" and had no A/C, but it got us where we wanted to go and was easy to park.  Perfect.

A few months later, we drove the Silver Bullet down to the Everglades for a day of quiet canoeing.  We were driving home on the Florida Turnpike in the late afternoon when the car suddenly stopped working.  We pulled over to the side of the road and waited.  Mind you, this was pre-cell phones so there was no way to call for help.  I figured a police car would stop to help us eventually, but after 2 or 3 of Florida's finest whizzed by us, I realized we were on our own, at the mercy of strangers.

Shortly thereafter, a black BMW with a single man inside pulled up in front of us.  He offered to take me in his car to call for help, but not Jaime.  He may have been a creepy guy or may have been simply trying to protect himself  - sitting on the side of the road in a crappy, broken-down car wearing only flipflops and bathing suits, we didn't exactly look like Boy Scouts.  Either way, we declined the offer.

The BMW drove off and we sat in the car, wondering if we should try to walk to the next exit, watching the setting sun.  Then another car pulled up with a young couple inside.  The guy looked under the hood of our car, shrugged, and offered to drive us to the next exit.  We jumped at the chance and made small talk for about 10 minutes until we reached the exit, which luckily had a gas station with a phone.  We thanked the couple, gave them a $20 for gas, and called AAA.

Last week, I thought about that young couple who so unceremoniously saved us from the side of the road 20 years ago, when I drove by a car stopped along the highway in RI, about halfway through my trip from CT to my parents' house in MA.  It was nighttime and I drove by so quickly, that I could barely make out the scene.  Someone was taking things out the trunk, a child underfoot, and a woman was carrying a child away from the car.  A sleeping child that was clearly too big to be carried easily - maybe 7 or 8 years old.

My first reaction was, I should stop.  I had gone too far to stop, but I could take the next exit and circle back.  I could give them a ride somewhere so the woman wouldn't have to carry that child. I wasn't in a rush.  I had an empty minivan. I could help.  Then I doubted.  What if they didn't need help?  What if they thought I was a crazy person?  What if the children spilled grape juice all over the back seat? What if their suitcases were filled with crystal meth?  What if I took them into my car and then was disappeared, forever?  I didn't turn around.

I spent the rest of the car drive thinking about all the ways my life might have been changed forever, or not, if I had helped the family on the side of the road.  Maybe it was the Kennedy's cousins with a flat tire and I would spend a weekend at the Hyannis compound for the rest of my life.  Fast friends.  Maybe they would have declined the help, but appreciated and remembered the gesture. A brief moment of shared humanity.  Maybe we would have sat in awkward silence as I drove them to the next exit where they would sit at McDonald's and wait for her cousin to pick them up. Helpful, but not game-changing.

I can remember so clearly the deep sense of relief and gratitude that I felt when that young couple saved Jaime and me from the side of the road in 1993.  But I have never, in my entire life, stopped to help someone else.  What is that all about?  I see people in a tough spot, and just keep driving.