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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

“Well, he learned his lesson,” the officer said about me into his radio, as I sat in the back seat of the cruiser, no choice about overhearing.

I’d heard such lines before. I’m not convinced, though, about what I learned.

Earlier that day, I’d picked up my car from the garage and drove north out of the city in full confidence. What could go wrong? More fool me.

After a couple of hours, I noticed my battery light was on. I’d seen such lights before. I’d worry tomorrow.

Or maybe not. Gradually, more and more obscure dashboard lights flashed – two, three, four, six, seven – all obscure squiggles and hieroglyphics. I had never seen that many glow at once before in this or any other car. I hoped my VW could limp the rest of the way.

As Highway 11 curved past Gravenhurst, my radio cut out and suddenly the headlights too. Then the engine died and I rolled to the shoulder of the road.

Luckily, my hazards worked. Unluckily, I had no idea what to do. You see, I am one of the last people on Earth without a mobile phone.

The highway was surprisingly busy at 9 p.m., and I stood on the shoulder in the darkness, waving my arms as cars, pickups and transport trucks roared by. I wondered whether they could see me. For 20 minutes, no one stopped. Should I walk to the next service station two or three kilometres down the road? And what, in the meantime, should I do with Fraser the cat, who waited, crated inside the car?

A passing pickup truck’s brake lights flashed and he pulled over. The driver was on his way home after a long trip from British Columbia where he had gone for a job interview. When I mentioned that no one else stopped, the young man said, “People just don’t care any more.” He lent me his cellphone and I called for a tow.

Exchanging information, reporting my roadside-assistance membership number and describing my precise location were complicated by the loud roar of passing vehicles. Finally, I was informed that a tow truck would be there in a little over 30 minutes. The young man, in his kindness, was willing to wait.

Soon an OPP cruiser pulled in on the shoulder behind us and an officer got out. I explained the situation and my mobile-phone deficiency disorder. The policeman smiled, pointed at me with his index finger and exclaimed: “I thought so!”

“You’re just like my old man,” my first rescuer said. “He doesn’t have one either.”

“There are three or four of us left,” I joked.

I thanked him and wished him well with the new job. He drove off and the officer invited Fraser and me to sit in the back of his vehicle, to stay warm.

I got a little nervous when he asked for my full name and typed the information into the dashboard computer. A little less nervous when he realized it was my birthday the week before and asked how I celebrated. He seemed glad to hear about our little granddaughter’s visit.

The policeman told me that two people called in about a man waving at the side of the highway. “They were women and didn’t want to stop,” he explained.

“I can’t blame them,” I said. “Strange man on the side of the road.” I felt touched that people had been looking out for me after all. The officer and I made small talk. I tried not to think about the fact that my back-seat doors had no handles.

Half an hour later, the tow truck arrived. The driver had already put in a 14-hour day. He could take the car to my Muskoka residence and he also told me how to arrange a free trip for my car back to Toronto the next day. “That’s a good idea,” the cop said.

Eventually, the car was loaded and Fraser and I climbed into the truck’s cab for one of the bumpiest rides I’ve ever known – it was not quite spring and the road was badly potholed.

My tow-truck driver talked about his job, something he’d done for a decade, about his daughters, about the pandemic’s economic challenges, and made sympathetic sounds about how hard the rattling, noisy ride must be on my cat. Eventually, he deposited the three of us – car, Fraser and me – in our driveway. He left before we’d settled anything about what I owed or how much. I did not even have time to think about a tip. The next day he brought my car – at no expense to me – all the way back to the dealer in Toronto, and I was able to tip him after all.

I knew that once my spouse, my mother and my children heard about my latest misadventure they would agree with the bearded officer. It was time I learned my lesson and got a cellphone. After all, what responsible person has no mobile?

But I don’t know. I had a lot of good visits with new people. And what about all those folks who called for help on my behalf? And the officer who made sure Fraser and I stayed warm? And the tow-truck driver who got me home safely?

Is there a better way to discover the kindnesses of so many strangers?

This might be the real lesson I learned.

Arthur Boers lives in Toronto.