Last night, I was getting a Redbox and noticed a college kid had just missed a bus at about 7:30. They run on the hour so if he was going home, he would be stuck here for an extra hour. I honked and told him to get in and we would see if I could catch the bus for him. He did.
Darker skin, thin mustache, and collared shirt that was slightly oversized for his tiny frame, jet black hair, and a soft, gentle demeanor. I could tell his backpack was chocked full of books and heavy. He placed it on his lap, didn’t put his seatbelt on. I was going to say something, but I hesitated, thinking we were only going to go a block or two before I caught up with the bus. We never did.
I asked him small talk questions as I drove; You go to Cal State? Yes. What are you studying? Masters. What subject? Electrical Engineering. How long do you have left? Three months. Where are you from? India.
I told him I had just heard a news report that said there is now a fear running through India that students thinking of coming here are being targeted because of the shooting in—“Kansas,” he said, finishing my sentence, “That was a crazy man.”
I asked him if it was here too, and he said softly, “Yes, I think so…”
I asked him where he lived and told him I would just take him all the way there. It was a mile or so, over by the traffic circle in Long Beach. Lots of students live in the apartments over there. I could tell he was a little uncomfortable. He said meekly at one point, “It’s ok, I can go back in the school.” I told him it would only take me a minute to get over there and save him an hour.
He told me where to pull over and he thanked me. I shook his hand and wished him well. He got out and I drove home.
As I did, I started thinking about our five minutes together. He didn’t ask me any questions. He just got in my car. A complete stranger. I started driving right away and I wondered what was going through his head? He didn’t put his seatbelt on and I remembered his body language. He was a bit diagonal, back to the corner of the seat by the door. His giant backpack was on his lap and, maybe because it was so full, (but maybe not) it seemed to be really high, covering almost all of his chest. His hands and arms were underneath. Was one on the door handle? He was hesitant with his answers, short.
What are you studying? Masters. Careful not to give too much away. Softly saying India, when I asked where he was from. Saying the shooter was a crazy person, hoping I would agree (worried that I wouldn’t?)
It hit me hard that he had been afraid for the entire car ride. Afraid of me. Of what I was capable of. Of where he might end up after the car ride. “Yes, I think so…” he had said softly when I asked if there was fear here too. Was he screaming it in his head too? “I’M AFRAID RIGHT NOW!”
He may have second-guessed his decision to get in the car immediately. “It’s ok, I can go back in the school,” maybe trying to get out of and unsteady situation that he was not in control of. I had taken over pretty quickly, the way I do, to help this kid out, get him home, save him bus fare, and time, and cold, and humility. I didn’t want money for the ride, or even gratitude. And I didn’t want him to feel weird about accepting help from a stranger. So I took over, trying to make him feel comfortable, not realizing that that very act could have been adding to his anxiety.
I thought to myself, “This is exactly how I would do it if I wanted to hurt immigrants.” I would put on that helpful face and offer assistance and then take advantage. I would act like someone I wasn’t in order to catch my victim in a moment of vulnerability. And then pounce, maybe screaming for them to get out of my country, of some other hate filled rant. Kind, helpful, people are taken advantage of. Our motives are questioned. Our altruism is second guessed. Black people in Bible study, Cops during traffic stops, Transgendered kids on social media, co-workers at a party, people getting their bags after a flight, schoolkids, theater goers…
And that sucks.
I don’t want Indian kids, studying for a Masters in Electrical Engineering to be afraid of getting a ride from a stranger two blocks from my house. I don’t want them to hold their backpacks in front of their chests, thinking “Maybe this will stop the bullet.” I don’t want them to have a hand on the door handle planning their escape from a bad situation. I don’t want my intentions questioned.
Sucks that we now live in a world where he might have those fears.
I wonder if he felt a wave of relief as I pulled to the curb, shook my hand, and got out. Did he watch my car make an illegal U-turn and head back from where we came? Did he wait a few minutes before heading into his complex just to make sure I wasn’t watching to see where all the Indian kids lived?
I hope he just felt good to be home, an hour earlier than expected.
Photo: Getty Images