I’m spending some time in and around Ludlow, Vermont, “warming” a family member’s rental condo before the snow falls. Shortly before I drove here, the heater in my Subaru began clicking and whirring. I packed a wool blanket in case I ran into trouble and needed to wait for help. The other day, driving back to my temporary abode from a hike in the woods, I decided to pop into a ceramics studio whose colorful work dotted an expansive front lawn. I pulled into the long driveway and parked my car. Nearby, a fellow chatted on his phone.
“Excuse me, your tire looks low,” he said, pausing his conversation. Sure enough, the front right tire had lost some air.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hadn’t noticed it.”
Before I could remind myself to feel grateful for this fellow’s attentiveness, my heart sank. It seemed to be another snafu characterizing this sojourn, which I’d fantasized would be 100% blissful (despite arrangements to the contrary, the door to the condo was locked when I arrived; I won’t bore you with other mishaps). While telling myself that the tire was an independent event, and not part of a string of omens or proof that the world was spinning even more out of control than it had already, I considered what to do. The tire remained soft, not completely flat, and I had another dozen miles to go. The man who’d been on the phone thought I might make it. Aware it would soon be getting dark, I hastily perused the gallery and decided to keep driving, but very slowly. Five miles later, just before 4pm, I spotted an Irving station and convenience store in the village of Weston. I turned left into the lot. Inside, I asked the fellow at the register, probably the owner, if he had an air pump. He came outdoors to show me where it was and looked at my tire, now much flatter than before.
“Forget the pump, that’s not going to help you. Call AAA,” he said. I did. I returned to the store and told him I’d be hanging out for 45 minutes.
“I’m about to brew more coffee,” he said.
“Do you have decaf?” I asked.
He offered to make more of that, too, though he’d be closing in two hours and, probably, most of the pot would be wasted. At that moment, I realized that I, a stranded stranger, could stand in a corner and occupy myself with my iPhone or put it away and be present with my immediate environment, even if it was a place that my mind dismissed as “boring”. After sending one e-mail, I tucked my phone inside my coat pocket. At that moment, my life involved waiting in a convenience store. Could I show up for that reality without the habitual attitude of wanting it to be over as soon as possible so I could have a “better” experience or “get on with things”? If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s attempting to avoid that which I don’t like or want, which only brings more of the same.
Locals trickled in, all but two of them men in their sixties and beyond. The owner greeted them each by name. One fellow wore a bright orange cap and khaki pants tucked into tall boots. Another, whose white hair peeked out from underneath a blue baseball cap, said he’d been logging that day. Three fresh scratches angled down the left side of his neck. I wondered what had happened. As they lined up and presented their purchases (mostly beer) at the register, the owner asked them how they were doing. I wondered if this ritual repeated itself most afternoons.
“Whose red car is that?” asked a slender man with twinkly blue eyes, a lined face and a large smile that revealed teeth pointing in assorted directions. By then, the owner had left his position at the register and tended the coffee machine.
“Mine,” I said.
“It’s got a flat tire,” he said.
“I know…,” I said.
“That’s why she’s here. Waiting for AAA,” said the owner, before I could finish my sentence.
“Heck, I could fix it,” said the twinkly eyed man. “But then I couldn’t collect the money from AAA and John would be pissed.”
I guessed that John was the local auto repair person who often is dispatched by AAA. By then, a small crowd had gathered in a circle by the urns, waiting to be filled with freshly brewed Green Mountain coffee. The decidedly unfancy store, filled with everything from wine to hand crafted beeswax candles to packaged goods to candy bars, also filled the role of meeting place even though there was no place to sit. It reminded me of walking El Camino de Santiago and stumbling into small cafes and bars in various villages over the course of my journey, where mostly men gathered over espresso or alcohol to talk about the day. Perhaps the convenience or general store served a similar role in small American towns.
“The coffee’s ready,” said the owner. I filled my travel mug and, although I wasn’t hungry, chose some maple beef jerky to support the store. I carried my purchases to the register.
“Just $3.00,” he said, shaving a few bucks from the total, “since you’re stuck here, for now. I’m stuck here all the time.”
“Thanks!” I handed him a $5 bill. “I’m happy to be here rather than on the side of the road. It looks like you’ve got a good crowd that comes in.”
“You should see this place in the morning!” he said. He rolled his eyes, but I wondered if he was just playing cool. The townspeople wouldn’t show up daily, if not twice a day, if they didn’t like him. Nor would he let them hang out if he didn’t enjoy them, either.
My phone beeped. I had a voicemail. The folks dispatched by AAA had called to say they’d be showing up in a silver Prius. I wandered, beverage in hand, throughout the store. By then, just one other customer remained, a fellow in his late 60s or early 70s. He leaned against the coffee counter, a half-filled cup in his hand, and said he was killing time before going to the local playhouse to turn on the lights.
“What’s happening there?” I asked.
“Three comedians from Albany,” he said. “It’s open to the public.”
I considered sticking around and getting a ticket, simply to see who else lived here in the off season. Then I spotted headlights through the front door and poked my head out. The silver Prius had arrived, bearing an older married couple in bulky coats and wool hats. She did the paperwork while he removed a wrench and a jack from the back of their car. Mostly she watched as he removed the failed tire which, it turned out, had been punctured by a nail. She and I chatted a bit; it turned out they owned a tow truck, too, but drove the Prius since it got 48 miles per gallon.
“It’s getting cold,” she said, rubbing her gloved hands together.
“Yes, it is,” I said, glancing at the sky as it turned shades of pink, purple and blue, the vestiges of what might have been a brilliant sunset. I noticed a twinge of disappointment that I’d missed it. Perhaps I’d see it another time.
As they were wrapping up, she reminded her husband to tighten the bolts on my spare which, thankfully, turned out to be full size. He grumbled that he had been planning to do that while inflating it with a motorized pump. I didn’t doubt him, and I appreciated her vigilance, even if it annoyed her spouse. I suspected they’d had similar exchanges many times in their forays as mom and pop roadside rescuers. While I hoped I would not need to call them again, somehow they, like the convenience store owner, warmed my heart. Perhaps that’s what can happen when one inhabits the moment rather than resisting or trying to get through it. As I drove away on my newly inflated tire, I noticed my spirits felt more buoyant, too.