Recently, my college-aged daughter and I were headed home from an outing with our bicycles at a state park. We hit rush-hour traffic on U.S. Hwy. 281 outside San Antonio and found ourselves in the wrong lane. (If you’ve ever been on 281 during rush hour, you know it can get as clogged as the arteries in a West Texas good ol’ boy whose diet consists of chicken-fried steak and Frito pie.)
Katherine turned on her car’s right blinker, and waited for her shot to weave into the next lane. I looked over my shoulder and saw a man and woman in a minivan. Ever the small-town optimist, I said to Katherine: “Maybe the guy in the minivan will let us in.”
“No, Mom, it’s okay. I’ll wait,” Katherine, my ever-patient offspring, said.
The guy in the minivan should have been my first clue. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a guy driving a minivan, mind you. It’s just not something you see every day here in South Texas. Guys drive pickups. They drive trucks as big as Dallas. They drive Harleys. Heck, they even drive SUVs, but guys driving sure-enough, soccer-mom-type minivans are a whole ‘nother story.
“Oh, hey look, he’s from New York,” I exclaimed, happily pointing at the minivan’s front license plate. I’ll wave and see if he’ll let us in.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mom.” Did I mention that Katherine has pretty good common sense?
He’s from New York should have been my second clue, but I was oblivious, because my Momma and Daddy taught me to be courteous and friendly and, hey, a vehicle with a New York state license plate just isn’t something you see every day round these parts.
“Aww, it’ll be fine,” I said with confidence.
You’d think I would have learned my lesson. Only hours before, I’d said the same thing about a bike trail sign which warned “rough terrain” ahead. How did I know there would be rocks the size of Mount Rushmore? And, was it my fault that there were humongous, octopus-like tree roots lying in wait to snag our tires? And, really, it genuinely seemed the thing to do at the time to pack a backpack with a tire pump, an umbrella, snacks, water bottles, bug spray, chap stick, sunscreen, allergy medicine and toothpicks. Oh, and a floppy canvas hat, a bird guidebook and Nikon D-3300 camera with a 70-300 mm lens. After all, we might see some birds. In hindsight, our hollering as we hit the rocks and jarred ourselves almost senseless probably made that point moot. Did I mention the backpack was heavy?
“Aww, it’ll be fine,” I had said. What seemed like 13 bone-jarring miles later, we emerged from the trail, much wiser and very sore in the, shall I say, saddle? We came to a paved park road which sloped gently down to the river and we happily coasted our bikes downhill, carefree, like reckless kids. I think we even shouted whee a time or two. Then, it dawned on us that meant the return trip to the car would be uphill. We took turns wearing the backpack. I draped the camera around my neck.
But, back to The Guy in the Minivan from New York. I gave him a friendly wave, flashed him my best smile and politely pointed to the space between the front of his vehicle and the car’s bumper ahead of him. Everybody and their dog in Texas knows what that means: “Pardon me, sir, may I please go in front of you when the light changes? I would surely appreciate it.” When you do this, the other driver usually smiles back and nods or waves you on. It’s non-verbal communication at its best. Then, when you’ve safely made the lane change, you look in the rearview mirror and give the other driver a somewhat effusive wave. He usually nods or waves or even gives a good ol’ boy salute: The raising of the index in acknowledgement. It’s courteous. It’s nice. It’s the thing to do. You know, Drive Friendly – the Texas Way and all.
Obviously, The Guy in the Minivan from New York didn’t see that sign when he crossed over the state line, because he scowled and the hand motions he made looked like he was helping land a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier. You know those guys who help land the planes or the catapult crew members? In no uncertain non-verbal terms, he also let me know that he was going to drive straight ahead when the light changed.
“Mom, you’re stressing him out,” Katherine, always empathetic, said.
“No, he just misunderstood what we want to do,” I said, leaning over to roll down the window so I could holler out at the guy something like: “Yoohoo! I wasn’t trying to be rude, sir. I was just wondering if you would be so kind as to let us in your lane? Are y’all on your way to the Alamo?” After all, I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea about Texas from our odd encounter.
Katherine used her outside voice. “MOTHER, DO NOT ROLL DOWN THAT WINDOW.”
The light changed and The Guy in the Minivan from New York practically kissed the bumper of the car in front in an attempt to keep us from merging. Or, maybe it was in an attempt to put some distance between him and me. Reluctantly, I have to admit it was probably the latter. Because, as I leaned back in my seat, my floppy canvas hat caught the visor and the mirror popped open. I took a look at myself. It wasn’t pretty.
The Guy in the Minivan from New York didn’t know me. He only saw an almost 50-year-old woman in a floppy hat with her hot, red cheeks dripping with sweat. She was wearing a very large camera with a very large lens around her neck. To top it off, there was the t-shirt with a Bible verse in extremely large letters on the front: Psalm 46:5 God is within her; she will not fail. I could almost hear the woman in the minivan say to her husband: “Quick, hon, lock the doors.”
I wanted to shout after him: “Hey, mister, I’m really not crazy! I think you got the wrong idea.”
What I said was, “Oh boy, I think he’s going to have a hard time here in Texas.”
Katherine, who had regained the use of her indoor voice, gently chided: “Now, Mom, remember the gloves.”
Ah, the gloves. The story of the gloves is one which has permanently imbedded itself into our family’s history. I cringe at the memory. I was with friends from New York City one winter day in the Big Apple. As we sat in the parking lot of White Castle eating mighty tiny hamburgers, I might add, I turned quickly in the back seat and came face-to-face with a strange woman peering in the window, inches from my nose. Considering it was the first time for me to be in the big city and out of extreme caution, I shrieked wildly and used my outdoor voice: WHAT IN THE WORLD DOES THIS WOMAN WANT?
Turns out, when I had stepped out of the minivan to take off my coat, my winter gloves had dropped on the asphalt, and this poor woman was simply being kind. She had picked them up for me, and was trying to get my attention to return them. I was mortified. My New York buddies laughed their heads off. I promptly got out of the vehicle and apologized profusely to the poor woman in the heavy overcoat who, by this time, had put some distance between us. My NYC buddy hollered out to the woman in Spanish and said something to the effect: “She’s sorry. She didn’t mean anything by it. She’s from Texas.”
My Spanish isn’t muy bueno but I did understand his meaning so I shouted after her: “That’s right, ma’am. I’m from Texas, and I am so sorry.” And, then I sheepishly added: “Thank you kindly.”
I just wish I could tell that to The Guy in the Minivan from New York.