Helping Strangers Who Run Out of Gas

Around 11pm several weeks ago, I was at a stoplight off the freeway and the driver of the car in front of me got out to wave me to go around her. As I slowly drove past her, she was frazzled and speaking on her cell phone, explaining to someone that she had run out of gas.

“Do you need me to get you some gas?” I leaned out of my car window and asked her.

“Yes, yes, yes, thank you,” she said. She told the person on the phone, never mind it was covered and focused her frazzled attention on me. She explained that this wasn’t her SUV, it was her husband’s and he was in New York, but he would flip out if he knew that she was driving this late at night with her baby in the backseat.

7-11 was the closest gas station and they had a ridiculous looking gas can. The instructions were pretty vague and I asked the girl behind the counter how to use it. She didn’t know. Neither did her manager in the back office. This was taking too long and the girl was already frazzled back at the stop light, so I filled the can with gas and decided we would figure it out when I arrived.

Without going into details of how many ways we tried to get the gas into the tank or how many people we had on the side of the road helping us who could not figure it out either, finally the girl said she would call her dad back. That was who she had been on the phone with when I stopped to help her, she explained. He owned a tow truck company.

The tow truck arrived less than two minutes after she placed the call. I thought it was funny – not only was she an adorable blonde who everyone wanted to help, but a tow truck was two minutes from her phone call.

But the good part of this situation was that I now knew the riddle to using the gas can. You have to break it to use it. We couldn’t see the perforated center on the lid of the gas can because it was dark and was never even mentioned in the instructions. But basically, you unscrew the lid and fill it with gas. After you’ve resealed the lid you have to tear a tab off to reopen it. Then you have to punch a hole through the center of the lid, put the pipe through the hole, and close it again. It can only be used one time.

So about an hour ago, I saw a big guy standing in front of his motorcycle on the side of the freeway. I drove past and it looked as if he had run out of gas. I figured: adorable blonde with a baby in the backseat – people stop for her. But leather-wearing 270-pound biker dude – no one will stop for him. I circled back and yes, he had run out of gas. The single-serving gas can was the only option available at the gas station, so I filled it, returned to the biker dude, and knew what I was doing. Good thing too – because he didn’t know how to use the can and it would have been pretty inconvenient to flag anyone down to stop on the freeway. Glad that I met the blonde to prepare me for this.

Twice in a two week period, I stopped to help motorists who had run out of gas. Both were embarrassed for needing the help. The blonde wanted to send me with money to the gas station as soon as I met her. I told her not to worry about it, though she was insistent. Finally I said that we could sort it out when I returned. I didn’t want to drive off with any money or a credit card and have her wonder if I was coming back. I wanted her to be calm while she waited, not to feel vulnerable and suspicious. But when I returned she did not forget. She insisted on giving me some money.

The biker was the same. When I offered to get him gas, he looked defeated. He said: “But I don’t have any cash on me.” I told him not to worry and then he suggested that he go with me, so that he could use his credit card. He had a really nice bike, so I told him just to wait with the bike. It was not a big deal. When I returned he gave me a Target gift card that he had in his wallet plus his business card so that I could contact him if I needed anything from the casino where he worked.

It cost just under $20 to help each of these two, but it is a really nice feeling. I didn’t want anything for it, though they both insisted and wouldn’t hear of me not accepting payment. I understood. I would probably feel the same – wanting to compensate a stranger to appease my own feelings of foolishness and to remove any pangs of indebtedness. So I allowed them to pay me, not for me, but so they would feel better. The blonde underpaid me by $10 and the biker overpaid me by $10, but there was something lost by accepting their payments. The situation reversed itself from a good, faceless deed to a thing of recognition.

I’ve never been convinced that altruism is a selfless act. We feel good when we help others – we even feel good when we watch people helping others – and there is a benefit to the one who is able to serve. When I stopped to help these two, I did not think: “They are lucky I am here.” I truly thought: “I am lucky to be able to help someone today.” Taking money for my help dampened that joy a little bit.