[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Dave Patel
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Wiggle Your Tows: Professional good samaritan Dave Patel works for the state-funded Freeway Service Patrol, roaming the freeways in search of drivers in distress and rescuing them for free.

Why It Pays To Be Nice

Professional good Samaritans are alive and well. The amateurs? They're a little harder to find.

By Traci Hukill

I LOVE EPIPHANIES. I love the way they pop up at weird times, fully formed, like Athena sprouting from the head of Zeus. My theory is that they drift happily in the subconscious, feeding on mostly useless internal dialogue and scattered impressions until some situation cracks the host organism on the head (figuratively speaking) and one of them instantly matures and leaps forth: Hah! Too late to suppress me now, sucka.

It is a Friday at 2:45pm. I'm standing by the side of the freeway, and I've just had a series of epiphanies. The first one is: It is unnatural for people to operate machines they can't repair. The second one--its corollary--says that, when this is a fact of life, it is a sign of foolishness and even arrogance not to have AAA.

The machine responsible for this momentous intellectual event is not badly broken. It has a flat tire. I have gotten out of the car, walked around it, viewed the damage and actually scratched my head, and now I am getting back in the car to--what? Listen to the radio and wait for AAA? No. To hobble to the next off-ramp, where I intend to call my 3pm appointment to tell her I'll be late, then pay someone what will most likely be a lot of money to replace the tire.

I am closing my car door when a car pulls over in front of me and a middle-aged man gets out. He squints into the glare of my cracked windshield while he walks toward me.

Later I will realize that this is not a generous way to describe someone: Not a "concerned" man or a "nice" man, but a "middle-aged" man in blue Dockers, pressed shirt and knit tie, his eyebrows all bunched up with worry. But I'm not thinking about being generous right now. I'm thinking about being prudent. Friendly, but prudent. I roll down the window a little.

"What happened?" he bellows above the freeway's din.

"I had a blowout."

He looks into the oncoming traffic, nodding, knit tie flapping in the wind. "The same thing happened to me the other day. I felt sorry for you, so I stopped."

I thank him and get out to show him the trouble. The collapsed tire is as wrinkled as panty hose around an old lady's ankle.

"Do you have AAA?" he shouts.

"I wish."

He looks back at the tire. "Same as me. I was coming off the freeway. I must have been doing 85. All my life, I can't let anyone get ahead of me." He shakes his head. "Are you going far?"

"Lawrence Expressway. I was thinking I'd try to get to the next exit."

"I have an air compressor in my car. I can try to pump it up for you," he says. He retrieves a Delco compressor the size of an iron from the trunk of his car and plugs it into my car's cigarette lighter. It makes a terrible racket--half toy rat-a-tat, half leaf-blower roar.

We squat a while, watching the tire. It doesn't move. "It takes a long time," he assures me. There seems to be plenty of time for conversation, so I ask him if he always stops to help people who are stranded by the side of the road.

He shrugs. "I usually stop, yes. The last time, though, I stopped to help this woman--it was in Los Altos--and I came up to her and she rolled up the window and locked the doors. I felt this big." He makes the international thumb-and-forefinger gesture for puny. "And I used to live on the Peninsula!" he adds indignantly. He ponders the insult for a few seconds. "I almost didn't stop for you, but then I thought, 'What the hell.'"

A third epiphany, less well-formed than the first two, tumbles out of my subconscious: Being nice is a thankless job. And no one has to do it.

TEN MINUTES LATER--or seven or three, it's hard to tell--we are sitting on the curb, smoking. The Delco is laboring away to little effect. Examining the ground around me, I have discovered that city freeways are toxic environments where even the weeds give up. I do my part for urban decay and flick my ashes on the gravel.

I'm not much of a daytime smoker, but when I first refused to take one of Milton's Marlboros (we have by now exchanged introductions), he chided my foolishness.

"Oh, come on!" he exclaimed impatiently. "Your car is broken down. You need a cigarette!"

And now I see that he was right. It feels very appropriate to be smoking during a crisis. I could be on the evening news tonight, smoking next to my flat tire, and thousands of people would recognize me as someone in grave circumstances.

Hard times bring out strange instincts in people. Once when I thought my car had been stolen, a friend responded by standing up very wearily and announcing in the gravest of tones, "I'll go make a pot of coffee," like an old Norwegian farmer settling in for a long and difficult night of calving. Later we learned that my car had actually been towed and laughed our asses off about the coffee thing, but at the time it was a great comfort to know a steaming beverage was on the way.

Milton gestures at the air compressor.

"I got this with coupons," he says.

"With what?"

"These." He pulls out his Marlboros and runs his thumb over the bar code. "I send them in. I've gotten other stuff--a sleeping bag, duffel bag."

"I guess you smoke a lot?"

"Lately. Lately I smoke two, two-and-a-half packs a day. Usually, I smoke a pack a day."

It turns out Milton's life sucks. He used to be in the "import-export" business, whatever that is, but he quit because the high-pressure lifestyle was making him batty. He moved to Modesto and now commutes 108 miles each way to manage a restaurant specializing in pies. He has no life of his own anymore. He hates it. In fact, he hates everything about Silicon Valley.

"This place is awful," he says, looking at the shiny vehicles barreling past in the baking freeway corridor. "I can't wait to get out of here. I want to go to Europe."

Milton looks like he'd be at home in Europe. He has certain characteristics to recommend him: black hair, charming manners, an accent of some kind, cologne. Then there are the cigarettes (he's on his second). Of course, I am a simple American with only a small understanding of continental ways, but I can see Milton rolling the dice in Monaco or quaffing an espresso in Rome. No problem.

Milton holds his cigarette in his mouth and tests the Delco's connection to the tire, which is as flat as it ever was. "I tell my friends, 'California is like a drum,'" he says. "When you play it, it sounds beautiful. If you look inside, it's absolutely hollow."

I find such grand bitterness awe-inspiring and honor it with respectful silence. In spite of the short amount of time that's elapsed, Milton and I have forged an unspoken alliance. We are kindred spirits, alike in our misery (even though the source of mine is automotive and his is philosophical), and it seems that fate has brought us together for mutual encouragement. So we listen to each other more courteously than if we saw each other day in and day out, with a more generous supply of compassion at hand.

We talk some more while the Delco drones on. Milton produces Styrofoam cups and ice water from a cooler in his trunk ("It's the only way I can stay awake on the drive home"), and I borrow his cell phone to call my 3pm appointment, who laughs at my predicament and tells me to come when I can. Milton and I talk about how California has too many people. We discuss photography and meaningful work.

I find myself thinking that we would be true friends even in the real world. Or would we? Would we be talking like this even outside this weird bubble of circumstance? What if he's hitting on me? Why isn't anything simple?

On the other hand, this entire exchange is about trust. Milton took a chance pulling over. I might have rolled up my window and made him feel "this big." So I owe it to him to trust his motives. Or maybe I don't owe anybody anything. Why am I suspicious in the first place? Am I a victim of propaganda? Am I just being naive?

I am swimming in the philosophical implications. To further complicate things, the conversation takes a melancholy turn. Milton reveals to me the true source of his unhappiness: He lost his smile many years ago, he says, as a result of a disastrous love affair. He was Christian, she was Muslim. They were young, he says--impetuous, madly in love and strictly forbidden to marry.

"We thought our love could change the world. And instead it fell flat on its face," he tells me with awesome bitterness. The girl's parents arranged her marriage to a Muslim man, and Milton lied to her, telling her he no longer loved her so she would not struggle against her fate and risk being punished.

It's very beautiful and dramatic, and Milton looks sad at the end of his tale. In silence, we stare at the tire, which has not inflated one cubic centimeter, even though the air compressor is still making a great show of being busy. I realize that all the characters in this drama today--Milton, me, the tire--are depressed to a greater or a lesser degree. The traffic on the freeway continues to pound by in its mad, uncaring rush.

And then the completely unexpected transpires. In the midst of my ruminations, a white tow truck bearing an official seal pulls up, and a jolly-looking guy dressed in blue coveralls with reflective tape around the ankles and arms jumps out. His name is Leon, and he is a professional good Samaritan.

He doesn't put it that way. He trundles over to us holding out a pamphlet, explaining that it's his job to patrol the freeways helping stranded motorists (hence the program name "Freeway Service Patrol"). He changes tires, gives away gasoline, fills radiators, tows cars--whatever it takes. All for free. Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission pick up the tab.

Leon takes my exclamations of joy and wonder in stride. He has work to do. In an instant, he ascertains that the tire needs changing. I open my trunk, he seizes the spare, and a few spins of a lug nut wrench later I'm good to go. Leon presents me with a three-inch gash in my old tire that embarrasses me for some reason. Then, all but doffing his hat, Leon hands me a comment card with his name on it (postage already paid!) and wishes me a good day.

And just like that, it's over. Milton is packing the air compressor in its box and closing the trunk of his car. There will be no more pleasant loitering today. The glitch has been corrected with dispatch and the machine's running smoothly again, so it's on to the pie house and the 3pm appointment, which is now a 3:45pm appointment.

My suspicions about Milton have evaporated. Regretful, we hug and promise to have lunch someday.

Brian Tract
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Nice Save: Brian Tract is a happy man after receiving a free tow from the Freeway Service Patrol.

IT'S NOT EXACTLY TRUE that being nice is a job no one has to do. Being nice figures into every job, from kindergartner ("Plays Well With Others") to employed adult ("Works Well With Management"). People who schlep things for other people (beer, prime rib, luggage) are even paid according to their niceness. That's the arrangement.

But being nice when no one's looking? Stopping to help someone on the side of the road when there's no grade or tip at stake? Or even when the person could be a hostile? That's being a good Samaritan.

In the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, a Jewish guy gets beat up and robbed by a band of thieves and is lying in a ditch, near death. Jews and Samaritans didn't get along in those days. So, when two Jews pass by the wounded man pretending not to notice him, but this Samaritan stops and tends to his wounds and puts him up in a hotel, it's worth a parable.

The idea behind good Samaritanism is so good, the French made it into a law, which is why the photographers who caught Di and Dodi's dying breaths on film in a Parisian tunnel are in trouble. Some communities in the United States have similar ordinances (remember the last episode of Seinfeld?).

But is it still good Samaritanism when there's a reward involved? Maybe the Freeway Service Patrol drivers aren't true good Samaritans. First, they get paid. Secondly, the program started in 1991 as part of a statewide push to reduce air pollution in bigger cities. FSP sends out 300 drivers statewide (about 50 in the Bay Area) during morning and evening rush hours to patrol the worst urban arteries. Their job is to get cars off the shoulder so people don't rubberneck and cause congestion. The goal is so desirable that the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and local governments all chip in, too.

Sadly, the program might lose its funding in 2002, even though the public gets a lot of good from it: For every dollar spent on the program in the Bay Area, the public saves $3.50 in fuel and delay costs, including worker productivity.

The Freeway Service Patrol is not precisely a Good Samaritan program. But to its drivers, public safety is the No. 1 issue, not carbon monoxide. They rescue people daily, and that's got to feel good.

FASCINATED WITH THE IDEA of good Samaritanism, a few months later I join paid do-gooder Dave Patel in a Freeway Service Patrol tow truck for the evening shift, from 3 to 7pm. Patel is an ebullient guy with a husky tenor and a ready laugh. His beat this afternoon is Route 880 from Highway 9 to Highway 101. He gives me the rap: These are the radios; this is the paperwork; this is where the calls come in; here are the seven gears of the tow truck, etc. He usually drives a pickup on the afternoon shift while another guy, Gordon Bowman, drives this rig, but they've switched today.

Initially, Patel is cautious with the press.

"So, I guess you drive around looking for trouble?" I joke.

He laughs hesitantly. "You can't print that! I drive around looking for people to assist. How's that?"

"How do people usually react to you?"

"First of all they get scared: 'Oh, now he's gonna charge me money.' Then we give them this brochure. After that, they're happy to see us."

The first run, which takes about an hour, is uneventful. Patel tags a couple of abandoned vehicles, helps a man tying down a load in his pickup and pulls over behind someone reading a map. There are codes for all these situations, codes and paperwork. Flat tires, empty gas tanks and mechanical troubles count for only a quarter of the 100,000 stops Bay Area FSP drivers make each year. The rest are subsets of the "miscellaneous" category: "Sleeping Driver," "Cell Phone," "Child Care," plus two polite designations for answering nature's call. People will do anything on the side of the road.

IS THIS THE BEST JOB in the world or the worst? I can't decide. Patel works long days. First there's the commute from Salinas starting at 4:30am. Then there's the job itself, which is driving in rush hour on purpose, back and forth, over and over. The morning shift ends at 10am. Patel either does paperwork at the office or catches a nap at a park, and then he goes back out for the evening rush hour. He gets home at 8:30 most evenings. So that's drive, drive, do paperwork, drive, drive.

"It's a fun job," Patel insists. "Every day is different." He says it's better than his old job, which was running a Travelodge. "That was a 24-hour headache, that one was, actually," he says. "This one you only have to deal with it eight hours."

Finally, a tow call comes in. Bowman is already at the scene with the pickup, but he needs the tow rig. Off we lumber to the rescue in this massive warhorse that needs a good 100 yards of shoulder space to get up enough speed to merge with traffic. (The public is so ungrateful. No one lets Patel in his or her lane all evening long.)

The casualty is a brown Maverick. Patel pulls over, and he and Bowman start securing the car to the tow truck. Driver Brian Tract is shaking his head.

"I don't have a clue," he says. "All of a sudden I just heard a big boom, and 30 or 40 seconds later I didn't have any power. But this was great," he says, gesturing at the two men bustling around. "I wasn't on the side of the road but for two minutes. They're doing a great job."

After we tow the Maverick to a side street off the nearest exit, Tract offers Bowman a tip. Bowman reacts as if he's just been offered a stick of dynamite. Both feet actually leave the ground at once.

"Oh, we don't take tips," he says quickly.

Later Patel explains. "You can take a tip, but we don't make a practice of it. If you do, you have to turn it in to your supervisor and make a log entry for it. The money goes into a general fund to help drivers who have been injured."

The evening wears on. Streaks of pink and orange paint the darkening sky. The headlights and taillights all around are kind of pretty, like a holiday light show. Patel grows chatty.

"This is an awesome job," he brags. "This is the best job I ever had, and that's a true fact."

"Have you always liked driving?"

"I love driving."

The job has made him a better citizen of the road. "I used to drive 70, 80 miles per hour all the time. Now I rarely catch myself driving faster than 65, and it's a true fact because you know what? We see so much out here. It puts a fear in a person. And I have actually figured out that if I drive a little slower, I get home the same damn time."

Being a hero for a living isn't bad, either. "I like it personally because I like to help people out," he says modestly. "People are very appreciative. I didn't think they would be, but they are."

Patel tells a story about staying with a woman an hour past the end of his shift until a commercial tow could get to her. The FSP newsletter, "On Patrol '99," is crammed with thank-you notes from happy customers with stories just like it. Most of them didn't even know the program existed.

And then there's the comic aspect of the job. Patel once stopped to help a man who was out of gas but insisted he wasn't.

"He was reading the wrong gauge," he says. "He was looking at the temperature gauge. That one was kind of funny."

I have another question for Patel. Since my own blowout and chance meeting with Milton, I've been scanning the roadsides for good Samaritan tableaus. There aren't as many as I thought there would be. (good Samaritans, not broken-down cars. There are plenty of those.)

So I'm wondering: Am I just not seeing the do-gooders out there? When the Freeway Service Patrol guys get to a car, is there usually someone pulled over to help them already?

"No, not really," Patel says. "In the six months I've been here, I've only seen it twice."

God knows, I tell myself, I'm too selfish to stop and help people. I think about Milton making his harrowing commute every day and still taking the time to stop. I have his phone number written down somewhere, but we haven't had lunch yet. I didn't call him. The way it is now, that afternoon exists very nicely in my mind as proof of the kindness of strangers. It was a little sliver of evidence that the goodness of human nature is intact--at least in a few members of the species. This is a good thing. And I really just want to leave it that way.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.