It was nearly midnight when my phone lit up with a stream of text messages. It was my brother, Darren.
Darren was out of town, and my mom had borrowed his car. Now, she was dealing with a flat tire. Great. I quickly came to the realization that I wasn’t going to bed in the next 15 minutes.
A minute after this exchange, my phone lit up again. This time it was a phone call from my mom. I picked up the phone. She sounded calm. She had pulled into the parking lot of a motel that’s right off the exit. This motel is renowned for being a local epicenter of illicit activity, i.e., drugs and prostitution. As a child, I would timidly glance over at the motel as my family and I drove by - my virgin mind incapable of imagining what could possibly be going on there.
So it frightened me that my mom was stranded there in the middle of the night. I told her to call roadside assistance, quickly tossed on some sweatpants and a sweatshirt, jumped in the car, and drove the 25 minutes to Candler Road. As I pulled into the entrance of the motel, a sinking feeling came over me. There were homeless people and prostitutes posted around the entrance. Perched lifelessly like zombies from the Walking Dead, they came to life as they saw the lights of my car.
I parked right next to my brother’s car. My mom was in the driver’s seat and on the phone - updating a close friend about her current predicament. Before I opened my door, I put on my best mean mug. It was my don’t mess with me face. I got out of the car and began to assess the situation. The tire is definitely flat. Check. There is a lock on the lug nut. Check.
I had just begun searching for the lug nut key when a homeless man in a dark hoodie approached the car. My first reaction was to ignore him. Then my mom came up, and surprisingly, she introduced us. “Lamar, meet my son, Don.” She said this as if she was introducing me to a friend. She told me that he was the first person to come to her aide when she pulled into the parking lot. When they determined that the tire couldn’t be changed, he turned into a security guard, standing watch to make sure no one messed with her and the car. I scanned Lamar. Judging from his worn face and his humble demeanor, he had seen better times. I instantly regretted judging him.
However, it wasn’t long before I had my guard up again. I was searching in vain for the lug nut key when a woman approached us. Let’s call her Brenda. Her dark skin had deep wrinkles that made it difficult to guess her age. She could have been 35 or 55. As she spoke, I couldn’t help noticing that most of her front teeth were missing. She asked us for some change. I pretended not to hear her as I continued my futile search. My mom, on the other hand, engaged her. She told Brenda that she was stranded, which should be reason enough to say no to Brenda’s request. However, her next move surprised me. My mom stuck her head into the car, gathered whatever change she could find, walked over to Brenda, and placed the money in her hand.
Shortly after the exchange with Brenda, I came to the obvious conclusion that the lug nut key was not in the car. So, we had no choice but to wait for the tow truck that the insurance company had dispatched. If the tow truck driver didn’t have a key for the lug nut, we would just tow the car the 3 miles to my mom’s house. It was 1:30 AM, and we had 45 minutes to burn until the tow truck’s arrival. My mom, who had been sitting in the parking lot for almost 2 hours, needed a restroom break. We left Lamar in charge and headed down the road to the local Waffle King. Yes, not Waffle House. Waffle King.
We were only away from the car for 5 minutes, but I was anxious as we pulled back into the motel parking lot. The car was still in one piece, and our diligent watchman, Lamar, was still on duty. My mom thanked him and gave him some cash. He returned to his spot and continued to watch out for us.
My mom and I sat in my car trying to burn time by reflecting on the events that led to the flat tire and discussing life and its many twists and turns. 30 minutes passed before I spotted a tow truck entering the parking lot. My mom and I both got out of my car. We didn’t even need to flag it down. It stopped right in front of us. The passenger door of the tow truck opens, and out steps a familiar face. Brenda. The Brenda that my mom had just given some cash just an hour earlier. At this point, my mom and I are confused. Then the tow truck performs a u-turn and heads toward the exit. My mom and I look at each other in disbelief.
Before we even have a chance to register what is happening, another tow truck pulls in. It crosses paths with the exiting tow truck, and they exchange tow truck driver pleasantries. Meanwhile, Brenda just stands there in front of us. My mom, very much aware with what’s going on, asks Brenda, “Is that your friend?” Brenda exclaims, “He is now!” I nearly died.
Our tow truck driver stopped in the same spot that Brenda’s friend did. He walks over to us and introduces himself as Brian. I shake his hand. Something was strange about his handshake. I sneak a look and notice that the index and middle fingers are missing on his right hand. Brian took a quick look at the tire and told us that he didn’t have a lug nut key for the wheel. We would have to tow the car. My mom responded with a question, “Okay, where are you from?” Brian smiled, then said, “Jamaica.” As soon as we heard this, everything changed. We immediately code switched to speaking Patwah (Jamaican Patois).
He told us that he had a hunch that we were Jamaican because of our last name. We joked as he loaded the car onto the tow truck. He followed behind us as we drove the 3 miles to my mom’s house. He skillfully unloaded the car onto the steep incline of our driveway, all while joking and laughing with us. Brian shared with us that he comes from a long line of truck drivers. His father, uncles and grandfather were truck drivers in Jamaica. Driving a truck in Jamaica is serious business. It requires a tremendous amount of skill and precision because the roads are treacherous. It’s not uncommon to hear about a truck going over a cliff due to dangerous conditions. So, it was good that we had a tow truck driver that came from such a good pedigree. We continued to exchange stories - he told us that he lost his 2 fingers as a result of a gunshot wound soon after coming to the States. By the time he had finished, my mom had invited him to come back for an authentic Jamaican dinner. Brian and my mom became instant friends with us because she had identified a commonality that broke down whatever “stranger danger” barriers that had previously existed.
Shortly after Brian departed, I bid farewell to my mom and gave her a big hug. It was close to 3 AM when I finally climbed into my bed. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t get rid of the smile on my face. It was ironic how an emergency situation that began with me feeling scared and anxious took such an unexpected turn by ending on a euphoric high note - all because of my mom. I went there to help her, and instead, she gave me a master class on how to read, find common ground, relate with, and help strangers. It didn’t matter what they looked like or their socio-economic standing.
To be honest, she has always embraced everyone in the same playfully intelligent way. My entire life, she has easily maneuvered stressful situations with the grace and skill of a ballerina. Helping people is her modus operandi, and she ends up making friends and influencing others along the way. Her kind spirit coupled with her ability to find common ground with anyone makes her easily the most emotionally intelligent person I know.
My admiration for her knows no bounds. Even though I consider myself “grown,” she continues to teach me valuable life lessons; like the night we met the homeless man, the prostitute and the Jamaican tow truck driver with only 8 fingers, and they became Lamar, Brenda and Brian. Life’s lessons come in surprising packages.