checking myself in the central valley

The drive from LA to San Francisco crosses through some of the most foreign territory I have ever seen. I can more easily imagine myself living in a rainforest or a desert — and I don’t think it’s (just) romanticism or ignorance. I’ve been to those places. Perhaps it is ignorance of the central valley. I simply can’t imagine what I would do there. It is also an environment in which I expect the natives to be utterly, unmovably hostile to one of my kind. In my mind they believe things I can never support, they remain dogmatically closed-minded in the face of information. They will judge me. Perhaps because I enter their world with a bias written across my face, glinting off the nose ring. I judge them without knowing them. I remember the times I have tried to reach out and have had bibles thrown at my head — (true story) — and I take these episodes and extrapolate them unfairly across landscapes barely populated by people I’ve never met. In those times I always managed to find some way to communicate, have actually managed to find commonalities, but I came away exhausted, drained.

I do not want to be doing that much work as I head north to restart my life. At some point, even in a gas-sipping Tercel, it is necessary to exit my iPod-filled environment and venture out into a tiny slice of this world. A gas-station perched on the edge of it. A business catering to those of us who just pass through. A place where the workers really only talk to each other because they never expect to see any of us again. A world low on “regulars.” … or at least that’s what I think. My liberal, mediating, diplomatic, one-world-lovin’ self is wrapped tight in her stereotypes, pumping gas in the heat of the Central Valley. An enormous truck with tires half the size of my car pulls in, towing an aluminum motorboat. Looks like fishin’ time. An older man materializes from the driver’s side, dressed in camouflage with sunglasses and a hat pulled fairly low. The contrast between our vehicles is comical, but we’re hooked in to the same pump, opposite sides. We both start for the handle of the windshield washer at the same time. I step back with a gesture saying “go ahead” and he startles me completely with a warm smile and a soft voice. He says, “No. No. You go ahead.” And he means it. No taunting. Nothing but a big beaming smile and a gentlemanly moment. And I think I really have to check myself because that was totally unexpected. I have moved so far away from expecting goodness in this place that I was caught off guard. It is sad to be startled by a smile.

I finish and pass the squeegee on to him. I smile. He gives me another smile and a thanks. I am done, and I pull away, knowing he would still be there pumping gas into that tank for a while. Perhaps he thought about that, too, knowing he could wait. Or perhaps he’s just a nice guy with a good smile and a sweet voice who was there to make me think a little.

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