I don't generally recommend hitchhiking--either thumbing a ride or picking up a hitchhiker--because it's a pretty good way to get raped or murdered. Unless you're into that sort of thing, which personally I'm not. And I certainly don't recommend picking up a hitchhiker with kids in the car. That's like "stranger danger" on steroids, and apart from everything else sets a poor example for personal safety.
So I found myself torn over a mini-hitchhiking dilemma this afternoon while pumping gas on my way to pick up Isaac from school. Paige was in the car with me, and after I returned the nozzle to the pump, I turned around to find an old man kind of lurking near my car.
He was old (as I just said). Like, really old. At least 80, maybe even closer to 90. He was leaning on two canes, one of which had a flashlight jerry-rigged to it with electrical tape. He was dressed appropriately for the weather, with a warm hooded coat, sturdy-looking boots, and thick rubber gloves. He had a gray beard, blue eyes, about 75% of his teeth, and a fanny pack tied around his waist. I couldn't believe this guy was walking around outside in Juneau winter alone, but he seemed proudly self-sufficient and yet maybe needing (or at least wanting) a little bit of help and company.
"Are you going past the library, perhaps?" he asked me in a formal way, carefully enunciating every word. The library was directly across the street from the gas station, and when I pointed this out he shook his head, confused, and said, "Oh wait, I meant the post office." The post office was maybe a few hundred feet down the road. It was within sight, but the sun had already set and at the rate he was moving, it would take him 20 minutes to get there in 7 degrees on icy pavement.
Maybe he had a knife in his old-man fanny pack and was faking being weak and frail. Maybe the second he sat down next to me he'd put a gun to my head, and then what would happen to me and Paige? Then I reminded myself this was Juneau, not New York City in 1984, and what kind of person would I be not to give an old man a ride? And besides: did I really want to live in a world where a guy like this would murder me anyway? Plus, I was getting a good vibe off him for some reason, and I usually trust my instincts about stuff like that.
I decided to take my chances.
He gratefully accepted a ride and sunk slowly into the front seat, sniffling as he reached for a Kleenex. Noticing some stickers promoting wild Alaskan salmon on my dashboard, he started talking about the importance of clean water. "My nation is the Standing Rock Sioux," he said, "and you wouldn't believe it, the greed, the things that have been going on for 6,000 years, just to have clean water."
I nodded and tried to make small talk with what little knowledge I had of the DAPL. I told him I was on my way to the Montessori school to pick up my son; he told me his children had been in Montessori school and they "had taken Maria Montessori's wonderful lessons with them for the rest of their lives." He said he used to be a school principal in Unalakleet.
"Does your mom ever call you sunshine?," he asked Paige when I dropped him at the post office door. Paige beamed.
After I retrieved Isaac, I had to come back past the post office and saw him leaving at the very moment I drove by. I stopped and asked him if he wanted a ride home, which in Juneau can never be all that far away, and in this case turned out to be about six or seven blocks.
Paige had already bragged to Isaac about our good deed before we'd picked him up at school, and now both kids, whom the old man had greeted warmly, were completely fascinated with this entire turn of events. I could tell from their utter silence in the back seat.
"Do you know Lieutenant Kris Sell, from the Juneau Police Department?" the old man asked, when he was situated in the front seat again. Uh oh. Where was this going, I wondered, my radar up.
"She's a wonderful human being. And she has this initiative, called 'Year of Kindness,' where everyone is supposed to do something kind. Isn't that a wonderful idea?" I smiled and nodded and told him I certainly believed in that.
"My wife died in 1912," he said, clearly confused about the year, "and I miss her terribly. But I'll be with her again soon. The young people though, I feel good about what's coming. I talk to the high school kids at the bus stop, waiting outside the federal building. And I ask them what would be one thing you would change in the world. And they never say, 'I want two toys and a box of Cracker Jacks.' They always say something like solving a problem, or helping others. It's really wonderful."
"It's that house on the corner right there," he said pointing to a small yellow house with a fence in front of it. "My little dog will be there to greet me."
I hopped out of the driver's seat to help him out of the passenger side and put my arm through his as I walked him to his door. He turned to me and said, "I can tell a lot about people, and the kind of path they're on. Some people are on a path to do great and principled acts of kindness in their lives. And I know you're on that kind of path."
I smiled and told him I hoped he was right, and then I watched until I saw him open the door and walk inside.
I never caught his name.