BY ARMEN BACON
It was a measly eight dollars. No, I take that back – it was actually twelve. I was running late for a meeting. My car was running on fumes. Come to think of it, I had been running on empty for the better part of the week myself. Work demands, life issues, and simply not enough hours in the day had siphoned me dry and thrown my daily routine into a complete tailspin. To be perfectly honest, I was feeling out of sync with the universe and like a stranger in my own skin. But today was not the day to stop and figure out why – that would just have to wait. I needed to get gas. Pronto.
I had driven to work that day, never once noticing the dashboard light that had been glaring at me since I began my early morning commute. By the time it finally caught my eye, some six hours later, I was leaving my office, which sits in the heart of downtown Fresno. I headed south, toward the freeway, well aware that stopping for gas in the vicinity of southwest Fresno was not necessarily the wisest thing to do. What had once been my childhood Mecca and stomping ground was now sometimes referenced as seedy and unsafe – at least if you were a woman traveling solo. A few years ago a cop had pulled me over in exactly the same spot I was traveling today. He had implored me to lock my car doors and put my purse on the floorboard, out of sight, instead of on the passenger seat. He had even accused me of seducing a would-be carjacker or thief. His stern reprimand had reminded me of my father and I never forgot the concerned, parental look in his eyes. The neighborhood had changed in the past 40 years. But today I was in such a rush that when I pulled into the Union station, I ignored all of the policeman’s instructions. I left my keys in the car, purse on the seat in plain view and then proceeded to pump my gas. In all of my fifty-six years, I was not accustomed to looking over my shoulder or living in a state of fear. This was my community. My city. My Fresno. And besides, the gas station was located across the street from Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. My church.
As I pumped the gas, a colder than normal winter wind howled, blowing my hair every which way. I had buried my face close to my chest hoping to break the chill that seemed today to numb me to the bone. At first, I barely noticed the male silhouette standing next to the station’s façade. But then my eyes caught a second glimpse. This time, I saw him in full view. He was wearing a baseball cap and his hands were tucked deep into his pant pockets. His appearance was rugged and slightly disheveled, but understandably so, given the weather conditions. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give him a second thought. There were no stomach flutters or waves of anxiety to suggest trouble. Over the years, my instincts had had their share of practice communicating with me. As a college student, I had ventured off to Europe all by myself. Along the way, I had been mugged and robbed while traveling on a night train between France and Italy. I had also encountered danger during a run-in with a modern day Casanova near the Trevi Fountain. Later on in my travels, I wandered into a pair of forbidden alleys while exploring the streets of Morocco. Although I had lived to talk about each of these adventures, they had definitely sharpened my intuitive senses. If danger was looming, I generally got a signal. But there was no reason to worry here. After all, I was in my hometown, Fresno.
I continued to pump gas into my thirsty vehicle, which by now, was the only thing separating me from the stranger. I noticed him walking toward me. The next thing I heard was my first and last name coming from his voice as if to suggest that we were long lost friends. I had never seen him before. Suddenly I felt as though I had been cast in an episode of Twilight Zone. Who was this man and more importantly, how in the hell did he know my name?
He said it twice. The first time he said, “Hey, I know you,” reciting my first and last name. Then he said it again, only this time it came out as a question. There was something in his manner that made me slightly uneasy but then he began to smooth talk me with raves about my work. He obviously knew that I was a writer. I blushed as he described one of my essays, complimenting me to high heaven for my literary prowess. Flattery can get you everywhere. In retrospect, he was quite the pro at feeding my ego in order to satisfy his own cravings. I lowered my guard and extended a hand to say hello. It appeared that he was not someone to fear – he was a loyal fan. Well, at least a fan.
His appearance, the olive skin and prominent nose, was also an indication that he was Armenian. He confirmed his race and roots and told me his name. Although it didn’t ring a bell, I mentally placed him in the category of extended family and fellow countryman which is, by the way, what we do in the Armenian culture. If your name ends in ‘ian,’ you are instantly and automatically considered a distant relative and invited over to break bread and celebrate holidays. It’s an Armenian thing.
I couldn’t help but inquire what he was doing at the gas station. After all, it was freezing cold and this was not the safest of neighborhoods. The Armenian mother in me had already taken over and I was suddenly more worried about his safety and well being than the fact that my purse was wide open and in full view on the front seat of my car. He looked straight into my eyes and told me he was waiting for his brother. Apparently he had a flat tire and “as luck would have it,” he had forgotten his wallet at home. Oh, how he hated to ask, but might I spare eight dollars so he could fix the tire since it seemed that his brother had dismissed or forgotten his call for help?
Before he could finish his sentence, I broke in, insistent that he allow me to come to his rescue. Reaching for my wallet, I heard him fall all over himself with gratitude as he reiterated how embarrassed and humiliated he was to ask me for twelve dollars. His words puzzled me. Had I misunderstood him the first time or did the amount mysteriously grow by four dollars? It didn’t really matter, eight or twelve, whatever. At this juncture, I must admit I started feeling as though the lines were blurring between my heroic gesture and the possibility that I was falling prey to a scam. But after all, he was Armenian, and to be perfectly honest, I have done far more for complete strangers. Finally, taking in my surroundings, I looked around and came to the realization that there was no flat-tired vehicle anywhere in sight. Nonetheless, I opened my wallet and handed him the twelve dollars. He thanked me profusely and stepped aside so I could start my engine and be on my way. He was smart enough not to overstay his welcome.
As I made my exit, I couldn’t help but watch him through my rear view mirror. He was walking away from the gas station, head solemnly pointed down, hands back inside his pockets, and I may have been reading into his body language but all of a sudden, he appeared full of sorrow and shame. There was no car. No flat tire. We are a very proud people. I think he knew that I knew.
His gait became brisk. I turned my car around, facing in his direction and just gazed at him as he fled on foot, now becoming smaller in the distance. A flood of emotions was running through my body: sadness, anger, pity, and rage. I started wondering how he would spend the money. I could only hope that he would buy food, but I knew better. It was probably going to buy booze. Maybe drugs. Weeks later I lea
rned through the Armenian grapevine that he was a rather hopeless and habitual gambler. Homeless and living on the streets. Estranged from his Armenian family. I imagined their pain and anguish, their sense of loss and betrayal. Armenian sons are precious and valued family members, right up there with royalty.
Still staring in his direction, I got lost in my own thoughts when his footsteps stopped abruptly. He turned around, most certainly not expecting to see my car facing in his direction. Almost in slow motion, our eyes locked. He turned around, this time for good and just kept walking.
On a cold Fresno winter day, I stopped for gas and paid an extra $12 to fill up my tank. In the course of doing so, I had a head on collision with an Armenian stranger who thought he knew me. In the end, the only things we shared in common were our Armenian roots and the fact that earlier in the day, we had both been running on empty.