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The Kindness of Strangers---Again!



A sudden and vicious flat tire on a sunny beautiful Friday morning at 9:30am was not the way I expected my Labor Day weekend to start. I was just a mile away from meeting my friend Janice to paddleboard on Beaver Lake outside the town of Merton, about halfway between where she lives in Madison and I live in Milwaukee. Google maps told me to make what turned out to be a very wrong turn. I drove down a leafy street barely the width of a wide sidewalk in a small enclave of homes. I realized I needed to get out of this little neighborhood to arrive at the public boat launch. I drove down the street a bit farther looking for a place to turn around when a car approached me. How was this going to work with the road being so narrow? I pulled off the road onto the shoulder which looked like it had just been clear cut. The car passed me, the tiny white haired driver smiling and waggling her fingers at me. I stepped on the gas, pulled forward, and felt a jolt. Must've run over something, I thought. As I swerved back onto the road, I definitely felt another something. A worse something. As in my right front tire didn't seem to be working well. I thumped along back to the crossroads where I had entered the area and pulled over. Yep, a flat tire. I stared in wonderment at how the stick--it looked like a spear--had sliced the side of the tire. I thought tires ran over things.


"It will be ok," I told myself. "I have Roadside Assistance through our American Family Insurance. I have had a flat tire only once before in 45 years of driving and it got changed pretty fast. Stay positive. I'll be out on that beautiful lake within the hour."


I called my friend, told her what happened, and said hopefully I would meet up with her in an hour. She left a paddleboard for me to use leaning against her car.

I called Roadside Assistance and was told a "provider" would be out in 45 minutes (sounded like health care for cars). I chilled on the hood of my car, feeling the dappled sunlight on my closed eyelids. Taking deep slow breaths, and humming in between, I suddenly stopped as a young mom determinedly pushing a stroller with a squalling baby pulled up alongside me and peered at my tire. "Jeez," she said in wonderment, looking up at me. I exclaimed, "I know, right? Someone should be here soon." I sounded confident to my ears. Speaking above her baby's crying she explained her baby had colic and walking was the only thing that seemed to get her daughter to sleep. We began chatting about what a shock having a first baby can be as she stood there jiggling the stroller. I assured her that it gets easier. She told me about her experience with a flat tire. She said it caused her to miss a meeting with her boss, which ended up being a good thing. We laughed together until the squalling got more desperate. Sounding a bit strained, she said, "I'd better keep moving--good luck!" I replied, "Good luck to you!" Was that a wistful glance I saw as she looked sideways at me as she swung the stroller back onto the little street? Hmmm....maybe there was worse things than getting stuck with a flat tire? I remembered how exhausting it could be with babies as I leaned back again on the hood of the car in the dappled shade.


The "provider" cancelled, stating he had other more urgent calls on the holiday weekend. I called the Roadside Assistance operator; she said she would get another "provider." She called back---ETA 60-90 minutes. I settled in to wait. A car drove by and stopped. An elderly lady who introduced herself as Anita rolled down her window (hey, was that the woman I pulled over for??) She said she was on her way to the grocery store and did I need anything? I jokingly said, "A venti chai tea latte with skim would be awfully nice right about now." She told me her daughter was coming that evening with the kids for the weekend. She said she was going to make her grandkids homemade mac and cheese. I told her my secret ingredient for that dish was pureed roasted cauliflower mixed in with the milk. She laughed and said "That's a sneaky way to get kids to eat veggies." I said it had worked great for me when my kids were little--they never even noticed. She waved again and drove off. I dozed a bit on the hood of my car. Suddenly a group of older guys in serious biking outfits (what do you call such a group? A peloton?) pedaled up to me and said, "Hey, pretty lady, do you need any help?" They whistled as they looked at my dramatic looking flat. Secretly flattered by their compliment, I said, "No, someone is supposed to be here soon." I asked where they were off to and they told me about their annual Labor Day bike ride, proud that they had started this tradition over 20 years ago. We chatted about how easier biking was on the body as one got older compared to weight bearing exercise like jogging. They waved and gave me a thumbs up as they pedaled off for their ride. Coincidentally, a jogger loped past me just after they left. She stopped and also asked if she could be of help. I replied, "Nope, thanks though. Have a nice run!"


The second tow "provider" also cancelled, citing a long backup. The operator got me another one, saying the ETA was 60 minutes. Sighing with frustration, I called Janice and told her getting on the lake was not in the forecast for me today. She asked me where I was located and said she would stop by after paddle boarding if I was still there. I assured her I would not be, as I would probably be gone by noon.


Anita came back from the grocery store and handed me a chai latte through her car window. Surprised and delighted, I thanked her profusely. She suddenly groaned and said, "Darn it, I forgot my butter!" Pausing, she reached out her hand again, clasping mine, and said, "That's a small problem compared to what you are dealing with." She sped off back to the store, cheerfully waving again.


I thought about the life swirling around me in the neighborhood. I caught up with a podcast I wanted to finish. I tried to meditate. A youngish woman walked down her driveway to where my car was parked. She said, "I saw you from my window hours ago; I can't believe you're still here! Do you need anything?" Pausing for a beat, I said "Well, I could really use a bathroom, I just had a latte." She chuckled and said, "Of course, come on up."

I walked back down her driveway after meeting her five dogs, laughing as they swirled around my legs, smelling my dog Roxy on me.


The third tow "provider" cancelled. I told the Roadside Assistance Operator that I had now been waiting over 3 hours. She said she would call an "Out of network provider" and it would be no extra charge. Minutes later, she texted and said ETA is 45 minutes. Janice then pulled up and gasped as she saw my tire. She asked me what I needed. I said, "Let's take a little walk down the street." We chatted and laughed together and caught up with each other probably better than if we were out on the water. Janice left, needing to go and pick up her grandson. Alone again, I started finally to feel a bit as though I was in a "Groundhog Day" kind of situation: would I ever drive out of this neighborhood?? But stronger than that irritation was a feeling of having a surprisingly lovely, rather special morning. I met strangers that shared their lives with me and treated me like I was their friend or their neighbor.


At 1:15pm, almost four hours since my flat tire experience began, a kind, competent, capable looking guy named Alex arrived in an imposing black tow truck. "Hmm," he crisply said (and I quote), "Never seen a m____f___ing flat tire like that before." He changed the tire in less than 20 minutes, including the time it took him to consult YouTube to learn how to release the spare suspended under my ancient 2006 Toyota Highlander. God bless the kind soul who bothered to make a video on that obscure problem!

So what is the message here? Well, I could have felt pissed off, helpless, and annoyed in waiting so long missing out on paddle boarding with my friend. But, in hindsight, the flat tire provided me with an opportunity, with the help of strangers, to have a new perspective on an experience that could have so easily caused me to be angry and deflated, just like the flat tire.


That morning was a gift.







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