It was about a week prior to leaving for our fulltime RV life and I was still far from imagining what wonderful Chance Encounters might lay waiting for us on the journey ahead. Usually by this time I am getting exicited about leaving and eagerly anticipating the trip before us. But this year, I was engrossed in the details of packing up our home for the impending closing sale date and getting the camper outfitted and arranged for maximum efficiency. This year has involved a more hectic preparation since we were selling our home, putting household goods in storage and heading out to live fulltime in the RV for the foreseeable future. In this last week, the closets were emptied, the furniture sold and the refridgerator shut off. We were rotating a couple of changes of outfits, one set of sheets and eating out of a cooler to use everything up. Meals were what I picked up at Publix on a daily basis.
Now this is a switch for us because I seldom if ever take food shortcuts, not even when we are on the road. We eat as locally and as vegetarian as possible, but I have to admit that we just jumped right off that wagon to anything that was quick and easy during the latter days of this move. So healthy eating committments went into the wind and daily trips to Publix have been the norm now for a couple of weeks. The last minute details and demands of such a major life transition pre-empted my usual careful planning.
I should have know from past experience that Chance Encounters do not care how busy you are or what obligations call out for your time. They just pop up and demand that you pay attention to them. Chance Encounters see you rushing about and plot to stop you in your tracks and remind you of what is really important. Chance Encounters lie in wait in the most unlikely of places ready to pounce at the most unlikely of times.
And so it was on a sunny afternoon a week or so ago, when I jumped into the truck and took a speeding trip to Publix to grab a quick dinner of Whatever. We had been working all day shuffling loads of “stuff” to the storage unit. Arnie stayed back to tidy up the garage and I went to pick up dinner fixings. I scored rock star parking in the front of the usually clogged lot at Publix on Sand Mine Road, my least favorite Publix but the one nearest home. I grabbed my purse, jumped out and headed in, secretly hoping I didn’t run into anyone I knew from my community. I had no time to explain one more time to an about-to-be former neighbor that we were not leaving out of disatisfaction, but rather to pursue dreams. I didn’t have any more time to patiently commiserate about rising lot fees or the fact that the spa is down again. This close to leaving, I didn’t really give a care if there was loud music again at the pool on Sunday. I only wanted to pick up dinner, get home fast and crawl into bed, the air mattress.
The best strategy for not running into neighbors in the grocery store is to walk fast and look down. A baseball cap pulled down low helps too. I jumped swiftly out of the truck and headed into the store with intention. I was on a mission and had a plan. And then a Chance Encounter popped up and stopped me dead in my tracks. I heard a feeble voice call out, “I need ride. You give me ride.”
Looking up, right in front of me was a tiny little Asian lady who had clearly graced this earth the better part of ninety years. She was clutching a cart with two shopping bags in it to steady herself. She was standing in the middle of the lane of traffic and looking very confused. I saw my Mother in her. All thoughts of dinner gone in an instant, I approached her and asked her if she was alright. “No”, she said quietly, “ I need ride. You give me ride.” It was more of a command than a question. I looked around thinking that this must be some kind of set up. Could it be a parking lot robbery and she’s the bait? Could it be a reality show and some host is going to pop out to see if I do the right thing? I didn’t think so. She looked too helpless to be stickup bait and too real to be an actress. No, I thought, she really needs help. She’s frail, shaky and overheated on a sunny Florida late afternoon in the middle of the hot bustling asphalt parking lot.
Here is where I admit that every selfish impulse crossed my mind. My mind raced with ways to avoid this situation that I had no time for right now. I thought, I could just simply say no and walk away? Or, I could tell her to stay right there and I’ll call Uber? Or, I could go complain to management that little old ladies are soliciting rides in their parking lot and leave it to them to solve the problem? The truth was, I really didn’t have time for this inconvenient interuption of my flow. I was also concerned about the liability of assisting her. But ultimately, she was still standing there blocking traffic and repeating, “I need ride.” And ultimately, I am the one hearing it. On some level, that makes me responsible like or not. On some level, I cannot walk away, convenient or not.
I directed her to the bench outside of the store, asked her to sit down and told her that I would be right back out to get her and drive her home. I flew through the store gathering a few necessities and then came back out glancing over to the bench to locate her. Praise the lord, she wasn’t there! Probably someone else had fallen prey to her pleas and already scooped her up and taken her home taking me off the hook. I turned the cart towards my truck and started down the lane in relief. Then I spotted her. She was still standing in the same spot near my truck where I had initially seen her, I was now even more concerned that she would be overtaken by heat or exhaustion or both. That’s if someone doesn’t just run her down first. Evidently, despite nodding her head up and down, she had not understood a word about sitting down and waiting on the bench. She had stayed planted where I left her in order to not miss her ride home.
So against my better judgement, we somehow managed to heft all ninety pounds of her up and into the front seat of the truck. That was no small feat because it is a very high step and she is a very short lady. We sat for a minute while she drank a bottle of water I had picked up in the store. In very broken English, she shared that she lived nearby in a golf course community, her husband had recently died and she did not drive. A friend had dropped her off hours ago but she could not reach her friend by phone now. Her name was Linda. She had walked all over the parking lot, gone into the bank and the Applebee’s, but no one would give her a ride. She was shaken and embarrassed to have to rely on strangers for such a necessity. She said simply, “People should help people.” But it is not really that simple.
On the way to her home, I talked to her about how unsafe it is to ask for rides and suggested that she could always call 911 if she ever has a problem in the future. I talked to her about how unsafe it is to get into a car with a someone she does not know. She pointed me right and left in the direction of her home and when we arrived, she wanted me to come in. I declined, hoping to reinforce the point I was trying to make about strangers. I talked with her about how inviting anyone into her home is asking for trouble. “Not safe!”, I repeated over and over. She smiled and nodded and thanked me with a big hug. I went home and called Elderly protective services knowint that little I had said was understood. A nice young social worker called back and said she would be going out the next day to assess the situation, but I still do not know the outcome.
Four days, later I made another hurried run to Publix for a loaf of bread, eggs and milk. In the bakery aisle, I froze when I heard a familiar voice from behind me call, “ I need ride! You give me ride!” This could not possibly be happening again. But it was. Linda, stood there beaming from ear to ear, threw her arms in the air and grabbed me in an embrace that clearly indicated that I was her favorite cab driver. Obviously she had not heeded a word I said about safety. She instructed me to wait up front for her which, of course, I did for the next twenty minutes. That’s twenty minutes after I went to the car to tell Arnie that he might as well take a short nap because he would be driving Miss Daisy home. As you can imagine, he thought I must be kidding.
I went back into the store to wait. When Linda finally finished her shopping and went to pay for her groceries, I could see from a distance that there seemed to be some confusion. A supervisor approached the register and was trying to help, but Linda’s English is not good and she does not seem to hear very well either. Apparently, her EBT debit card had only three dollars left on it and she only had $18.00 in cash in a crumpled envelope. That left her $6.00 short of the total she needed. She turned to me and commanded, “ You help me. You pay. I pay you back.”
A line behind her was beginning to form. Next in line behind Linda was a large British woman who was making no secret of her annoyance, turning to her husband and exclaiming loudly,
“Can you believe this? She then spun around to me and boomed, “Is she with you?” In my best impression of Judas, I quickly denied it by saying an unequivicable, “Not exactly. It’s a bit of a long story.” I would have gladly bought my way out of this situation but I had just left my purse with Arnie in the car when I came back in to wait for Linda, so I had no money with me at the moment and stated that. Exasperated, the annoyed Queen Mother blared out for all to hear, “Nevermind, I will pay for your Grandmother!” My Grandmother? Did I tie my ponytail too tight this morning pulling my eyes back into an Asian countenance? Does she seriously think we look alike?
Restraining my sarcasm, I thanked the nice lady who has enough money for a second vacation home in the states near Disney for helping out the struggling elderly woman who couldn’t pay for her groceries. My Grandmother? Really?
As a result of that first Chance Encounter in the parking lot, I now had a tearful embarrassed Asian Grandmother, an angry impatient British woman and a befuddled Publix supervisor trying to move the line along on my hands. Not to mention hungry Arnie in the car. Sort out those priorities!
We drove Linda home that day, got her groceries in and gave her the safety talk one more time, knowing that we would never experience another Chance Encounter with her again. We were leaving very soon and would have to trust that there would be a safe person to take her home the next time from Publix. It’s hard to take comfort in the fact that we did what we could in the moment we had and it is hard not to worry about her fate.
Meanwhile, we go forward with compassion for those we will Encounter by Chance during our travels. We hope in small ways to do some good in this funny hurting world. Namaste and if you are shopping at the Publix at Sand Mine Road in Davenport, Florida, watch out for Linda!