There but for the grace . . .

The morning I left Oklahoma, I stopped at a gas station near Oklahoma City. I had to fill the rental car because otherwise I think they make you hand over a kidney when you attempt to turn it in half-empty.

As I got out of the car, I saw a guy approaching me from my left. He got out of a car that was parked on the other side of the gas pump. He looked to be in his mid-20s and was wearing black pants and a grey jacket.

"Hi," he started. "We're trying to get home to Texas and we just need some money for a pump for the car." He told me what kind of pump he needed but I can't recall. A water pump? Fuel pump?

I looked over at the car. I'm not into cars but I think it was a 1980-something Mustang. It seemed plausible that it could, indeed, need all sorts of parts. The guy held up a driver's license and pointed back at the car. "This is my wife's Texas driver's license, just so you know this isn't a scam or anything. That's my wife - she's six months pregnant." A young woman in the back of the car jutted her hand forward and stuck it out the passenger's side window, waving just slightly. She was wearing dark sunglasses. I could not tell if she was pregnant. An unshaven man sat behind the steering wheel. I glanced at the license, which looked like it had seen the inside of a washing machine a few times.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't live here and I really don't have any money."

I don't know why my place of residence had anything to do with the situation at hand. I felt like a goober for saying it. He nodded and went on to the next pump, approaching an older guy who was leaning against his Toyota as the tank filled.

I watched this young guy go from pump to pump. This was a large and busy gas station. Each person in turn shook his head, frowning as I had when I said no. As if to say, "I would if I could, man. Sorry."

The truth was, I only had about $17.00 in cash on me. I needed some money to get through the airports on the way home - lunch, tipping the skycap, bribing my kid with snacks, etc. As I stood there pumping gas into the car, though, I began to feel I had made a mistake. I looked at my car and took stock. Sure, it was an oldladymobile and a rental, but it was a 2010 oldladymobile. My daughter sat in the back of the car, watching "Peter Pan" on her portable DVD player. I glanced at my GPS, which was attached to the front window. My iPod sat on the seat, charging its battery via the cigarette lighter. P and I basically live paycheck to paycheck. I buy things I shouldn't. We are still paying on an adoption loan and our daughter is four and a half. And yet, life isn't half bad. We have jobs, cars, college degrees, 401K's, and a home that we own.

I grew up in the suburbs of DC. Seeing homeless people standing on the corner at a stoplight was a common occurrence. They usually carried a handwritten cardboard sign. You generally didn't give to any, because you couldn't possibly give to all. You left it to the tourists to do it. I can only recall one occasion where a homeless man was anything other than passive. My friend J and I had taken the Metro downtown and were walking near the National Mall. A man in tattered clothing ran up to us and kept shouting, "CAN I AX YOU A QUESTION?" at me.

I finished filling the tank and climbed back into the car. I opened my wallet and decided that I could, after all, spare a five (but at the same time realizing it wouldn't help all that much). I got back out and handed it to the man behind the wheel. The other guy was still making the rounds of all the pumps. "I'm sorry, I don't have much cash on me," I apologized.

His face brightened. "Oh, thank you so much!" he said, taking the money.

I don't know if I did the right thing or not. Maybe my five dollars went into someone's arm. Or maybe they drank my five dollars. Or maybe . . . they were stranded and just needed a part to get home.