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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I can’t miss the little old lady with her kerchief on her head, a black umbrella blowing all over, she is maybe five feet tall, her little legs are definitely soaked and so are her thick black stockings. I can tell she is freezing. This poor woman reminds me of one of my own relatives. She is standing at a bus stop, and I’m driving by, late for my early morning shift. At 18, I am lucky to have this part-time job and my silver Chevy Monza so I do not have to take public transit at this hour. I decide to stop and offer her a lift.

Of course, she declines, but when I ask again and insist, finally, she gets in the car. I take her to her destination, which is only a few minutes out of my way. By the time she gets out of my car, she is smiling and thanks me in broken English. I was late (again!) for work that day, but I was so glad that I stopped. That was 40 years ago, and the beginning of a new habit, one that continues when I’m out driving in bad weather.

If there’s someone at a bus stop, especially if it’s an elderly person waiting at off hours, and in bad weather, I will pull over and ask if they need a lift. I have years of experience taking public transit in bad weather and in many cases, it feels like the bus does not come for a long, long time. The standard response when I roll down the window and ask, is that I am waved off, told to keep on driving. But if the person is frail looking or soaking wet and obviously cold, I put on a mother-knows-best attitude.

Once, when a snowstorm slowed traffic right down, I had lots of time to watch two women waiting fruitlessly for a bus I knew wasn’t coming. I saw them as my car crept forward toward their stop – they stood hunched, pulling a scarf higher over their faces, adjusting their hats, moving back and forth – I could tell they were frozen and the snow was still coming down. Eventually, I pulled up beside them, rolled down the window and said that I would take them to the subway. When they hesitated, and I can understand their hesitation, I reminded them: “There are two of you and one of me!” Finally, they entered the car, soaked, cold and after a few minutes, I heard them sigh in relief.

There is always a sigh.

I wait for it, and smile as they settle into my warm car.

Once, a young resident doctor jumped in. She had finished a long shift and had been waiting and waiting at the bus stop. She had no hesitation and, for the first time, I was able to help someone who performs miracles on a daily basis: that felt good.

But the best part of my impromptu ride offers is the conversation. I do tend to ask a lot of questions: where are you from, where are you going, family, background, pets and whatever else comes to mind (but as I learned from parents, stay away from religion and politics). Surprisingly, everyone wants to chat. We are usually laughing by the time the ride is over. “What a shame!” I often think when they hop out, as the stories were just getting started.

With some of the older people who sit in car, I wonder if they joined me simply for the opportunity to talk to someone about their tales of the past. I have learned a lot from my passengers: they are full of advice for a long marriage, the difficulty in losing a driver’s license, tips for health and wellness, stories about the old days at the office, details about what their children are up to, and so on. I guess you could say, this is an extension of my social life, a private party perhaps. I often have a sense of sadness when the ride is over and have been known to double back sometimes in case there is someone else waiting at the bus stop so I can offer them a warm seat, too.

My grown children and my husband keep telling me that I should never pick up strangers. But I don’t see someone at a bus stop as a stranger – they’re just an ordinary person like me, so why not pass the time together? I have been happy to take that leap of faith over the years. While the cars have changed, the warm smile and offer to be my mate for a few minutes has not.

Now I am getting older I must not look as threatening. More people are accepting my ride offers. Age has its benefits in some roles in life. As retirement approaches, I believe I have found my calling. I will be only too happy to visit a seniors’ home or join a community driving program to take those special people to one appointment or another – or perhaps just to the coffee shop to sit and listen for an hour.

As the years pass, perhaps I will be the one standing at the bus stop. Perhaps there will be somebody who rolls down a window and offers me a seat for a little ride. I will continue to take that leap of faith in the kindness of strangers.

Anita Cook lives in Toronto.