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AL MARTINEZ

I hate changing tires, but no private anguish impedes the charity of a Good Samaritan. : Fear's Rusty Taste

July 14, 1988|AL MARTINEZ

I was on the freeway one morning listening to disc jockey Robert W. Morgan glory in the sound of his own voice when I saw a driver in distress.

That is not a new occurrence in L.A., where motorists are often forced to wait so long for help they must resort to cannibalism in order to survive.

I noticed the vehicle in distress because it was a Lincoln Continental, a car generally despised by the hostile poor who use the freeway.

I thought to myself, no one is going to help that person because they probably figure he's the rich operator of a sweat shop that exploits and abuses the working class.

Additionally, the Lincoln was on the shoulder closest to the fast lane where there are no emergency telephones, thus increasing the likelihood that its driver might grow old and die before he or she was rescued.

I was in a similar situation once and ended up drinking my own radiator water to stay alive during a summer heat wave.

So I figured what the hell, this might be the time to defy conventional wisdom and assist someone in trouble, even though piety runs contrary to my nature. I took an off-ramp, circled back and parked behind the Lincoln. It had a flat rear tire.

As I approached, I could see that its driver and sole occupant was a skinny, elderly woman with stark terror in her eyes who smoked a cigarette as though it were her last one before the guillotine.

She made no effort to lower her window as I stood there with the traffic roaring by. She had no doubt been admonished by her fundamentalist mother many years ago that strangers were not to be trusted.

As a result, she cringed back from the glass and stared at me in the same manner she might have observed a messenger from hell demanding that she dance naked on the hood.

Al Martinez

A lumberjack friend in Eureka used to say that fear tastes like a rusty knife, and I could imagine that the woman in the car was choking on it. I smiled as pleasantly as possible and said through the glass barrier that separated us, "Is there some way I can help you?"

"What do you want?" she said.

"I want to help you," I replied, remaining amiable.

"Why?" she demanded.

"What do you mean why ?" I said, beginning to feel foolish.

"I don't need help," she insisted. "I'm doing fine."

"I'll change your tire if you'd like," I said, my voice taking on an edge.

I hate changing tires, but no private anguish impedes the charity of a Good Samaritan.

"Don't touch the car!" she said. I couldn't believe the encounter was taking place. I felt like the guy in the cartoon who tried to help an old lady across the street. When she resisted, he beat her up and carried her across.

I stared at the woman for a few moments trying to figure out whether I should argue with her or just say to hell with it and go my angry way. Beating her up, while tempting, was out of the question.

She was trapped in a dread too thick to penetrate, and it was a debilitating condition. Fear clouds the ability to analyze and paralyzes the prey in the path of the predator, instantly decreasing the likelihood of survival in an urban jungle.

The lady in the Lincoln was more to be pitied than despised. The small world she inhabited had become a tomb because the mechanism upon which she relied had ceased to function. There was no adaptability. She was helpless.

"Just sit there," I finally said. "I'll call for help."

I looked back once as I drove away. She was lighting another cigarette and staring at me with the eyes of a gazelle which, for reasons known only to God, had just been spared a lion's killing claws.

I stopped at the first freeway phone and told whoever answered that a woman in a two-toned Lincoln was in dire need of assistance. "Better send a swat team," I added. "She may refuse to be taken alive."

As I thought about it, I wondered what could have been going through her head. I don't look like a man inclined to lust or violence. My arms are not longer than my legs and I rarely salivate. My shoes are shined, my trousers pressed and my nose hairs neatly clipped.

"It wasn't you," a psychologist friend said. "She was afraid of the unknown, the way children fear the dark. The anxiety was in her own head."

She felt the way we all feel, I guess, when complacency is fractured by the unexpected, leaving us vulnerable to the dangers that swirl like fireflies through the night.

That's why we wire our houses with burglar alarms, why we hire private security forces and why we live behind locked gates.

"I am a party of one," the essayist E.B. White once wrote, "and I live in an age of fear."

The lady in the Lincoln, wrapped in the disquietude of her own making, was a sad footnote to White's truth and a cringing symbol of our own isolation. A party of one, indeed.

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