So, the other day, the inside driver's door handle on my little Smart Car broke,. I was, of course, attempting to exit the car when the failure occurred. The flap-like lever that I pulled made a little "pop" and the cable it was pulling no longer seemed to have enough tension to trip the activator. My guess was that one of the braids of the cable had snapped and the cable itself had lengthened just a bit, but regardless of the diagnosis, there was no opening that door from the inside.
I could exit through the passenger door, but as small as the Smart is, that still required climbing over a stick shift and hand brake - not very smooth. The work-around was fairly simple: roll the window down and open the door using the outside handle, which still worked just fine. There were just two problems with this plan.
The first lay in the Smart's autolocking doors: as soon as the car reaches ten miles per hour, the doors lock, and the outside handle obviously won't work if the doors are locked. There is no unlock mechanism on the door or on the dash - the only way to unlock the door (besides the inside handle) is the button on the clicker. But the button on the clicker won't work if ignition is on. But the windows are electric and can't be operated if the ignition is off. So the routine had to go something like this: stop, roll window down, turn ignition off, unlock door, reach through window and open door, turn ignition on, roll window up, turn ignition off again.
The second problem was more physical: the Smart car's geometry puts the exterior door handle behind the driver and about even with my ears, calling for a maneuver with a relatively high degree of difficulty. Try reaching behind you at head height and imagine doing it through a window to pull something laterally and you'll feel what I mean.
All this to say that I took the car in posthaste to get fixed: I didn't want to out up with this rigmarole any longer than I had to. I took the car in on a Thursday; because they had to order a part it stayed at the shop over the weekend until Monday, and it was going to coast me about $500. Pretty steep ticket for a snapped cable, but I need to get in and out of the car, right? I went back to a bus commute for a few days, no problem, and a buddy dropped me off at the shop Monday.
There was a fellow ahead of me getting an estimate on having his wheel bearings re-packed. They were making noise so he was worried about taking the car any distance, and he needed to make a trip to Portland sometime soon. After some calculating, the price came back: about $500. The fellow hesitated a little, and then decided that he wouldn't leave the car just then, but would have to wait until next week, because the $500 was more than he could spare, and he'd have to wait until after he got paid again before he had enough to do the work. He drove off with his noisy, dubious brakes.
This was a moment that made me realize how good I have it. I had not hesitated to get my car door fixed and the repair was just to correct an inconvenience, not to ensure safety. The bill was an annoyance, but not a deal-breaker: my daily routine would not be affected, I would not miss a meal, I would actually feel no effect except perhaps a deferred luxury or a little less in savings at the end of the year. I was reminded that I no longer live paycheck-to-paycheck and what a great privilege that is: it has not been all that long that I have been in that situation and I know plenty of people for whom it is still out of reach.
Moments like this preserve, I hope, my compassion and generosity of spirit. I can't spend money that doesn't hurt without remembering all my brothers and sisters who have less, or who have no money to spend at all. I find ways to give back, big and small, planned and unplanned; if I didn't, I'm not sure how I could go on.
I had been down in Seattle the previous week at a training sponsored by a business association for area professionals (and some academics like me). The day-long session ended with a "heavy hors d'oeuvre" reception in the hotel bar: sliders, quiches, shoestring potatoes, fried cheese balls, the works. I couldn't stay long, and when I left I passed a homeless woman on the street outside the hotel. The contrast between the money being thrown away five stories above on people who didn't need it and this real person's immediate unmet needs was palpable. I was part of both those worlds. How could I not spare a couple of bills?
I'm not rich, and I like what I have, but I think I want to always remember how lucky I am, and to always remember those who are a little less lucky.