I know that someday you'll find better things.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Burning Bridges

“Are you sure this is what you want to do? Because it could all end badly.”
He wore the expression that I can only recognize in retrospect and only seem to remember after it is too late.

“Someone is in need, and we have the solution right here,” I held out my palm, cupped around the car keys. And then I said the words that would seal our fate, right then and there:

“This is compassion in action. How could it possibly end badly?”

He paused, carefully choosing words that would protect my naïve soap-bubble of optimism. “You understand that this gesture of compassion won’t magically turn the recipient into a pillar of good decision-making and unwavering integrity, don’t you?”

Of course I understood. 
We’re all human.

“And you’re okay with that? That it might not change her life?” he pressed.

“It will change her life right now, and that is what matters most. We need to do this.”

“What about the plan to sell it to pay off the debt of the blue car? Remember the plan?”

I remembered the plan. But we could find another way to repay that money. I could tutor. I could get back into hardcore couponing. We could give up meat for a year. We could build that bridge and cross it later.

The time to be helpful was now.

“So many people have shown us such tremendous mercy and generosity through the years. Really, it’s the only way to keep the balance in The Universe.”

He hates it when I bring The Universe into these conversations.


“God, I hope you’re right,” he muttered, as he went off to call the insurance lady to learn more about liability concerns, replace the tire that we suspected had a slow leak, and buy a new battery.

The Universe can be very persuasive.

***


The Universe, I thought, had presented us with a perfect opportunity to model a pay-it-forward attitude for our children.

We wouldn't need to make a big deal about it-- just letting it be a casual, commonplace event could more powerfully secure in their minds and hearts that extraordinary kindness can and should be part of an ordinary everyday life-style.

Our kids were all with the exes when the transition took place, and we'd been so wrapped up with the usual hustle and bustle of starting the week that we didn't think to give them any forewarning.

Caleb was the first to notice the vehicle's absence, and he tore into the house to alert us that it was missing and most likely had been stolen. When he'd calmed down, we explained that we'd long-term loaned it to a friend in need. He was surprisingly skeptical. "Is that a good idea?" he asked.

"I think it's a great idea!" Mia called out. "More room for scooters and sidewalk chalk in the driveway!"

When Hannah arrived home, they clamored to tell her the news. "Is that a good idea?" she asked.

Kindness is always a good idea, I assured everyone, prickling with annoyance at all this doubt. 

How could people so young already be so cynical?

***

Almost two months later, worries about liability had reached a fever pitch. Nothing critical had happened, per se, but with our names on the title and registration, if something did happen, it could jeopardize our household and financial stability.

A steady stream of unpaid bills were trickling in through the mail, namely in the form of Zipcash fees--and eventually fines--issued in my name with photo documentation of the white van.

I was somewhat confused: two days into the loan of the vehicle, I'd been reassured that a Toll Tag account had been established in the recipient's name to be billed to her address.

Many states with toll roads offer some sort of convenience plan at a discounted rate. In the Northeast, it's called EZ-Pass. Mid-westerners have the I-Pass. California has something called FasTrak .

In the thriving metropolis of Dallas-Fort Worth, the North Texas Tollway Authority has blessed us with two "economically and environmentally responsible options" for the grand privilege of using their roads.

Maybe you aren't familiar with the main differences between Zipcash and Toll Tag. I only recently found out. 

The Toll Tag is the granddaddy of the payment plans. It's been around here for at least as long as I have. It used to be a physical transponder box that one could switch from vehicle to vehicle at a moment's notice, but someone must have foreseen the potential problems with that plan-- not too late, I hope--and they've switched to a "sticker below the rear-view mirror" method. 

We are Toll Tag customers, which is why Zipcash--obviously more expensive according to the signs above the toll roads--remained a mystery for so long.

Zipcash emerged around the time that the SRT-121 Autobahn was built. The people in charge of building it decided to do away with the idea of tollbooths altogether, so the Zipcash cameras document usage, and then they bill (at a premium) the cost of usage to--ready?-- the registered and titled owner of the vehicle. 

When it comes to retrieving payments, the Zipcash folks do not mess around. First they send one bill, then a pink late notice, then a third (still bright pink, possibly brighter pink) notice stamped VIOLATION. The fourth attempt to contact is not really a notice at all. They send the situation to collections and continued failure to pay warrants DPS citations and is then prosecuted in court.

Well, this created an uncomfortable situation, especially for someone who goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation and all forms of debt and violations.

We realized that this would continue happening as long as the title was in my name. But, if we gave her the title, the liability would be off our shoulders.

As long as she titled and registered it in her name.

A free vehicle to own forever and ever for the low, low cost of titling and registering it (approximately $150, maybe less)?

Who wouldn't jump all over that opportunity?

***

Saturday, March 31, 2013 was warm and sunny, which could only be interpreted as The Universe's way of giving consent to passing along the title and spare set of keys.

My friend was so sincerely happy and grateful, and so was I.

Making the loan permanent brought a rush of positive energy and a release of all the anxiety that had been building with each subsequent pink Zipcash violation notice.

The rush lasted 17 days.

Reality returned with a vengeance in the form of more Zipcash fan mail and worse still, a red-light ticket.

***

I’ll spare you the details of the next few months. “Few” is easier on my pride than the more precise “ten” because it’s almost embarrassing how long I allowed this to continue.

Really, all you need to know is this gloomy pattern:
Zipcash fees, fines, warnings.
Red-light ticket.
Request about the registration and title status from me.
Deflecting, delaying, and a never-ending fountain of excuses and promises from her.
Lather, rinse, and repeat.

And then, a few quiet months when we thought all was finally well.

It was the January 2014 red-light ticket notice that proved otherwise.

I say this with infinite love and respect: thank goodness my father was busy executing some evictions and tending to other litigious matters, because I know beyond any shadow of a doubt, the man would have hopped aboard the first plane heading to Dallas mad as hell and ready for an all-out war.

And that is not good for anyone’s blood pressure, least of all his. 

It would be exponentially and unforgivably unjust if my foolish trust killed my father.

In order to prevent the untimely death of my dad, I engaged in a long and drawn-out (and sometimes kind/sometimes heated) request for the return of the vehicle. 

And, just to be on the safe side, I started to prepare the legal paperwork for a situation which turned out to be eligible for several charges of varying severity—some civil, some criminal, and quite possibly one real doozy that might've required the state’s attorneys. Fortunately I didn’t have to pursue that one because…

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, the vehicle came back!
Right to the front of the house.
Keys under the front door mat.
Oh, sweet relief!


***

As with the disappearance, the kids noticed the return immediately.
And the body damage.
And the smell.

This time Hannah was the first on the scene. “Oh my word. Oh my word,” she said, again and again with each new disappointing discovery.
“I know,” I said quietly, choking back tears.
“How can so much damage happen in one year’s time?” she asked, circling the vehicle.

It was a question I’d been wondering, too.

The mileage provided a clue--nearly 25,000 miles in twelve months. It didn’t seem mathematically possible.

Because I am in College Algebra right now and you probably are not, allow me to do the math here: the 25,000 miles that the recipient had driven the vehicle in twelve months is double the auto-industry’s standard usage. It is roughly 8 and one-third recommended oil changes, which, from a probability standpoint, does not seem likely to have happened in this instance.

Not to mention, it is the very, very least of the problems.

We'd been given a heads up that the steering was having problems, which was a huge understatement. The vehicle literally growls and shakes, whether it is in drive or reverse, with and without the application of the brakes.

The paint was almost completely scraped from the passenger-side door handles.
The front end had clearly collided with something-- the headlamp assembly was smashed in, the bumper was scraped, the grill was bent, and the hood was rumpled in such a way that it did not close completely on one side, creating a significant exposed gap.

Inside, an effort had been made to vacuum and Armor-all, but it hadn't completely removed the schmutz from any of the surfaces, and it couldn't conceal the black eye make-up on the visor.

Or the drooping headliner, which was now thumb-tacked in place.
Or the missing seat-recliner handle.
Or the missing middle-row floor-mats (oddly shaped and customized to the vehicle.)
Or the the missing rear floor mats. 
Or especially the eye-burningly strong odor of urine.

“It looks... it looks like an old car,” Hannah said, bewildered.

In truth, it is an old car—it's just that nobody really knew it was an old car because it had received immaculate care for its entire existence.

It was an impulse buy from a Texas dealership on the part of my parents the day after my college graduation in 2001. My mom and I had driven it back to Connecticut together, and then I’d flown back to Texas. 

My parents drove it back to Texas when Mia was born in 2006, and along with its title, my father had presented me with a fat file folder of every paper even remotely associated with every interaction regarding that vehicle.

No tire rotation was too insignificant.

I meticulously followed the model he’d set, filing the records and receipts of every oil change, registration receipt, emissions inspection, replacement, and repair. In combination with the Zipcash and red-light records, printouts of every text exchange and email with my loan recipient, before and after photos, and research about legal statutes, the documentation for this one vehicle now spans nearly ten inches in the filing cabinet.

I was overcome with grief and shame for owning the vehicle parked before me.

“This is overwhelming,” I whispered. “It has more damage than any vehicle I’ve ever owned.”
“Even more than the time you allegedly nicked the deer?” asked Hannah warmly, trying to restore my smile.
“Well, yes,” I confirmed. “Granted, there was quite a bit of deer fur stuck in the front grill of that Saab, and that one side door was kicked in, but that—that was an act of nature. THIS,” could I even say the words?

“This,” I said defeatedly, “was an act of compassion.”

***

“I still don’t understand. If it was trashed, why did we even try to get it back?” Caleb asked at the dinner table. Even though I knew the answer, that very thought had been crossing back and forth through my mind all afternoon.

Russ expertly fielded this question.

“Imagine if someone was going around town doing terrible things—robbing banks, hurting people, all kinds of crimes. Imagine if that person was wearing a mask that looked exactly like my face, or like Mom’s face. We’d be the ones that the police were looking for, right? And they would try to hold us responsible for breaking the law.”

The kids’ eyes widened.

“That’s sort of like what happened with the car. The person that we gave it to never followed the law’s directions about putting it in her own name so that she could be the owner. When she started making irresponsible choices like not paying those bills on time and getting those red-light tickets, she was wearing a mask of our family name and honor.”

He’s good, isn’t he?

“If something terrible happened, like a car accident or a hit-and-run, the police would hold us responsible. She had told us that she’d registered it and put the owner paperwork in her name, but that wasn’t the truth. We had to get the car back to in order to protect our family.”

“This is my fault,” I confessed to them. “It was my idea to lend it to her—and to try to give it to her—because I thought she was a friend in need. I wanted to show you the goodness that can come from doing kind things for others, but I feel like it backfired. I feel like I showed you a lesson of why you shouldn’t ever trust people or do kind things.”

“No,” said Hannah, “I don’t think that’s the lesson. I think you showed us that you have to think really carefully about who to trust and how much you are willing to risk before you do kind things. Big kind things,” she self-corrected, turning to Mia and Caleb. “Little kind things are always good—opening the door for someone or offering to carry the groceries. Helping little old ladies across the street is always a good thing. But when it comes to the big things, I think the lesson is to think with your head and not just your heart.”

We agreed and ate in silence for a few moments, pondering the wise words of our amazing fourteen-year-old.

“I feel so sorry about her child,” Mia said softly.
“Me, too,” the others echoed.

I love, love, love being a parent to such compassionate children, even during times like this when the flame of compassion has burned our hands and our hearts. I love that they can see beyond the immediate situation to understand that a child is impacted by the decisions and lifestyle of a parent.

“That’s just one of the sad consequences that happen when people burn bridges,” said Russ.

“I think I understand what that expression means, Dad,” said Caleb. “When people burn their bridges, they don’t have a way to get across anymore.”
“Then they’re trapped,” said Mia.
“And usually alone,” I agreed.

As I looked around the table, I felt especially grateful that we had each other—our own little human bridge across challenging times.


***


After dinner, Russ and I went outside to look under the hood for clues to the steering problem. Is it a clue if everything is covered in reddish-orange dust? Something was definitely going on with the power-steering fluid, too. Black goo covered the cap and the reservoir. 

I couldn't take it another second, and I started scrubbing away at that cap with a Clorox wipe. Russ intervened and said I should probably leave it alone in case it would help the mechanic identify the problem. I argued back at first-- even after the cap was clean, there'd still be a ton of black goo evidence to identify the problem.

"Do you think we'll need to hire a tow truck to bring it to the mechanic?"
“God, I hope not. The bill’s already going to be huge.”
“It’s been airing out for a few hours, but the smell is still making my eyes water. I guess we should close the windows, though, so that squirrels don’t get in…”
“Honestly, I’m not sure if that would make it any worse.”

***

Later that night, it was still on Mia’s mind.
“It used to be so nice, Mommy. Remember?”
I remembered.
“Did she say she was sorry for hurting it?”

She did not, but Mia didn’t need to know that. Russ always says there are two definitions of sorry.

One means "apologetic."
The other means "sub-standard."

We now knew which category this former friend belonged to, and no words could change that.

I know in this case Russ hates to be right, but it did end badly. 

Tragedy was both the impetus and the outcome for our act of compassion.

Why memorialize this mega judgment-lapse by sharing this story with others? Sometimes we all need a reminder that nobody's perfect and even the best of intentions can end poorly, but this is not a cautionary tale to warn the masses against kind actions. Hannah's words were so right: you have to think really carefully about who to trust and how much you are willing to risk before you do kind things.

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