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Serendipity in the Big City

MY four children and I spent part of the summer vacation and most of our school snow days last winter exploring the sights of Washington.

But, although I became comfortable with our frequent trips to downtown D.C., the journeys always followed a predictable pattern. I had my route down pat, never daring to deviate off the familiar streets that led to the ``safe'' monument zone where tourists, like us, belonged.

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While driving down the outer fringes of this city where the row houses looked decrepit, and sprayed-on paint was a vivid sign of initiative, I would always think a little nervously, ``I'm glad we're just passing through.'' From the interior of my car, I felt safe from whatever invisible threat might lurk down the side streets.

Then last week, as I was rushing to a conference in the city, I passed the street where I was supposed to turn. I made a quick U-turn in my minivan, and my right tire hit the curb and punctured. As I pulled off the road to a vacant lot, I felt my heart begin to pound. I was stranded on the very street I had always managed to rush past.

I looked around at the abandoned row houses, at the swiftly moving traffic where no one stopped to help, and at my glove compartment, empty of tire-changing directions. I figured I could spend the day sitting there inside my van, scared and helpless, or I could get out and try to locate the spare. I slowly opened the door and stepped down, feeling panicky and exposed.

Within minutes a man appeared, clad in work coveralls and dragging a large trash can to a dumpster. Conquering my uneasiness, I told him what had happened. In an instant, he was on his back under the van and unscrewing the spare by hand. And then, without a word, he began jacking up the van and removing the bolts that held the damaged tire in place.

I stood there watching as he worked, amazed and grateful, and told him the story of my ill-conceived U-turn and of my husband's likely dismay when I'd tell him later about what happened to the new tire.

I also told him how the evening before I had been discussing with a group of friends the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan and how we had each wondered what we could do that week to be one. ``You,'' I said, ``have been my Good Samaritan,'' and I faltered as I tried to express my appreciation without betraying the apprehension that I had carried with me for so long. He looked up at me, his hands smeared with grease, and in his slight smile I saw how well he understood.

Many of us move within narrow perimeters. We limit ourselves to the predictable because of fear of the unknown. But sometimes, an improbable event forces us to lower our protective drawbridge and let the unfamiliar in.

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Within minutes, my old tire was off and stowed in the back and the small spare firmly secured. I was barely late for my conference, and I knew that my sincere thanks and small payment to this man had been insufficient for the instinctive kindness he had shown. I pulled out of that vacant lot with a changed tire and a new perspective.

During the conference lunch break, I set off again into strange territory to find a new tire that would get me home, since the spare was not really safe for more than a short drive. I pulled into the nearest neighborhood gas station, where several cars in disrepair were parked, and was directed to George by the Hispanic head mechanic.

George, a large and friendly Nigerian, promised to have my new tire on in 10 minutes; and he did, squeezing me in between two other jobs. I told him how fortunate I had been this day to find two people so kind and helpful. He looked up at me with a radiant smile and in his jaunty African accent insisted, ``This is a good city. Everybody's been good to me. If you look for the good, you find it.''

Incredulous people I have told this story to remain, for the most part, unconvinced, full, as they are, of too many news reports and their own entrenched fear. Others, amused at my naivete, smile and tell me that I was just lucky. The savvy ones, those who live or work in D.C., are perhaps most realistic when they note that, in the big city, perhaps the dangers are just more obvious. But they, like me, refuse to allow these dangers to become obstacles to the abundant possibilities.

I stepped inside the small office of this busy northeast D.C. gas station. The cashier, a reserved and smiling Asian, asked if everything had been OK. ``It was fine,'' I assured him and realized just how true that was. I drove off slowly, taking in the scene.

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