Highway 78 in Birmingham has never been my lucky stretch. Five years ago, I was heading home to Arkansas from Georgia after the holidays. My Toyota Camry — with its one remaining hubcap — was loaded with Christmas loot, the centerpiece of which was a cooler full of Mother’s home cooking. I pulled into a Circle K for some gas, but when I got back into the car, the key would not budge in the ignition. I turned it with all my might, cursing the fact that I had given up exercising with hand grips. But nothing worked.
So, I called AAA, and a serviceman came. He turned the key, too, so much so that it broke in half. I wasn’t sure whether I should be angry at the damage or envious of this guy’s brute strength. Within minutes he was towing my car to the nearest repair shop. The owner started the paperwork on my Camry and said it would be a few days. He then pointed to a car rental store down the road.
I soon came back with a Corolla and started loading the presents, food and clothes from the old Toyota into the new one. At that point I was regretting the fact that I had not packed away in a suitcase the Cookie Monster sweatpants that my sister-in-law gave me as a gag gift, and which the guys in the auto repair shop eyed with no small amount of suspicion. I made a hasty exit and headed back to Georgia.
After I got home, an ice storm hit the South that evening, so I was stranded for longer than expected. Mom and I had no choice but to open the cooler and eat the contents. Eventually, I returned to Birmingham, picked up my car, put a new key in the new ignition switch and drove my empty cooler back to Arkansas.
On the way home from Georgia last week, I was on the same stretch of road, about a mile from the Circle K.This time I pulled into the BP for gas, but that didn’t stop the curse of the keys. When I stepped out of the car and closed the door, I saw them — in all their glory — sitting on the front seat. Next to my phone. Naturally, all the doors were locked.
As problems go, of course, this one was mild. I went inside and asked the clerk if I could use his phone. He shrugged and said the gas station phone only accepted incoming calls. Luckily for me, an older man was standing in line and offered to help. I explained what had happened, and he called “Pop-a-Lock” and booked a locksmith for me. He even waited a while until the serviceman called back to confirm he was coming.
The man’s name was Jimmy, and I thanked him for his kindness to a stranger. He said, “I want to tell you something.” The locksmith was 45 minutes away, so of course I had time for a story. Jimmy told me that a while back he went out to eat and wore a brand-new hat. The restaurant manager admired the hat and asked to know where he got it. He let the man try it on, and the hat fit perfectly.
“Keep it,” Jimmy said. It was a $200 hat. He had only worn it twice.
Two weeks later, someone else gave him something for free that was worth $800. “I gave away my hat,” Jimmy said, “and it came back to me four-fold.”
On a roll with his folksy wisdom, he took two cards out of his wallet. One was red, and the other was blue. I thought, “Sakes alive! He’s going to do a magic trick, right here in front of the potato chip aisle.” It was a classic optical illusion with two rainbow-shaped cards. He held them side by side and asked, “Which one is larger?” I told him the red one. Then he swapped their places. Now the blue one looked larger.
“This is how we see each other,” Jimmy explained. “When you look at me, you see an old black man. When I look at you, I see a young white man” (He was being generous with the word “young”). “But this is how God sees us.” Then he put the cards together, and they matched perfectly. With a smile and a blessing, he went on his way.
Eventually the locksmith came. He took one glance at my rusted Camry and grinned. He was kind enough not to ask what happened to the other three hubcaps. One minute and $80 later, I was back on the road. And so was Jimmy, no doubt off on another errand of mercy, spreading more kindness and homespun parables.
Maybe Highway 78 is luckier than I thought.