At first glance he appeared to be no different from any other man standing at some busy traffic intersection holding the familiar cardboard sign usually scribbled almost illegibly with a request for help. I had pulled off the interstate to fill up with gas before we began the road trip back home after our Christmastime with my family. The babies were giggling and playing in their car seats, and the doggies were attentively nosing against their pet taxi doors to evaluate whether or not this decreased speed would result in some tasty morsel from one of those drive-through food makers.
I was stopping at a cross-section on the interstate that was a usual stop for me to refuel. There were truck stops on each corner and lined up further down the sides of the road. After I come down the exit ramp I always turn right and scan the gas prices as I decide between a couple of gas stations I frequent. A cent or two difference seems a silly reason to make a choice of one station over the other, but there is always that twinge of feeling as though I am doing something wrong if I pass up the chance to save 15 cents on a tank of gas.
So why I happened to glance to the left on this day as I headed down the exit ramp I could not have explained. I never look left. There is only one station that direction, and it seems a bit more out of the way since you have to travel across the overpass to get to it. The parking lot is a little less well-marked to help truck and car traffic get in and out without hassle, and usually the gas price is the same or higher than my stations on the right. But today, for some reason, I made note of the big gas price sign that stands alone at the left on a pole high enough above the station for interstate traffic to see. Waiting for the light to turn green I hummed along with the Christmas music on the radio and peeked in my rear-view mirror to check on the babies. After I made my usual right turn and was half a block away from my stations I realized that for the first time that lone station to the left of the exit ramp was a full five cents a gallon cheaper than any other station around. I must have paused for a moment to consider if rerouting myself was really worth saving five cents a gallon, but there was not a lot of other traffic traveling in the middle a Tuesday afternoon so I was able to turn around and head back to the left without bothering any other drivers as I changed course.
To get to this little station I had to take the overpass across the interstate, and there were a couple of stop lights directing traffic around the cloverleaf. As I was slowing behind several cars to stop at the first light I saw him. Up ahead at the second light he was standing with his back to our lanes of traffic as he held his sign waist-high toward the drivers on the ramp exiting the eastbound interstate. There was nothing remarkable about this man in the blue and green plaid quilted jacket, and he had the typical assortment of bags and backpacks laid out on the side of the road next to where he stood. I remember thinking he seemed to be traveling a littler heavier than the men I see at the intersections in the city, and as I sat staring at the lumps of his belongings on the ground I noticed a reddish mound. I wasn't near enough to be certain, but now I was considering the possibility that one of these mounds was a dog. A man and a dog. In the cold. On the side of a road. Not in a warm van with snacks and warm blankets for either of them. Now I was beginning to process more quickly and could feel myself start trying to figure out how to share some of what I had with this man and his dog when he clearly was not going to see me with his back turned and his attention on the streaming cross-traffic. The overpass shoulder was not big enough for me to pull over, and while I must admit the thought crossed my mind I quickly ruled out throwing my car in park, blocking traffic with all the honking and cursing and gesturing that would ensue, and running across the road to him while the babies and the doggies sat waiting in the van for crazy mommy to return. Now, as the light was changing, and I was coming closer to him I saw quite clearly that the mound was indeed a dog laying on the cold gravelly ground resting its nose on its paws. And then I saw that on the other side of the lumps of the man's belongings was another dog! A large black dog lay on the other side and also had its nose buried in its paws.
Now I was feeling a definite panic that I must get to this man somehow, but I was being pushed in the stream of traffic toward what I thought was my original destination. I turned into the parking lot of the gas station and navigated around the lines of cars to an open pump. I stood outside waiting for my tank to fill and noticed the temperature seemed to be dropping. I pulled my jacket a little tighter and rubbed my face into my scarf as I remained focused on my need to figure out how I was going to get this thing done that had now become a requirement of my soul and not just a passing desire. There was no way I was not going to share what I had with this man and his dogs. As I pulled back out of the parking lot and onto the road I realized that if I had to turn around again and again as I made pass after pass by this man and his dogs I would accomplish this mission. I slowed just a little before the light and was graced with the gift of a bright yellow and then red light which allowed me to seem slightly less insane for stopping in the middle of the road. Now I did the only thing I could think to do. I gave a short honk of my van horn. No response. Of course there was a lot of traffic, and I was contemplating just how long I had before my beautiful red light turned a nasty shade of get-your-ass-moving green. I honked again and anticipated I would be making this trip across the overpass more than once or twice today. One more honk. Then suddenly he turned to glance over his shoulder and saw me waving my arm out my window.
Now, the realization dawned on me that this man had to make a decision about whether or not he was going to leave his post and attempt to dart across three lanes of traffic to get to a lady, with what he must have thought would be a one dollar bill, who was flapping her arm around like a mad woman. And as time seemed to slow down and speed up all at the same time I thought to myself as I saw in his eyes the decision to try to cross the lanes of cars, "Please, if anyone is watching over us right now, just keep this damn light red." He bobbed, and he wove, and he ended up just a few feet from me reaching out toward my hand. He gripped his cardboard in his other hand with a cigarette dangling between two fingers, and in the breath of a moment as he saw the bill that I pressed into his hand his face registered confusion and then dismay. Then his face softened, and at second glance I recognized that this man was, indeed, remarkable. And I had reached my true destination. I looked into his eyes and nodded as I noticed the light was just about to turn. He whispered, "God bless you," and bobbed and wove back through the cars without a backwards glance, and my eyes filled with tears knowing it was no coincidence I turned left.