past midnight

When I was a teen, we were never ever allowed out past midnight.  The reason was stated as fact: “Nothing good happens after midnight.”

I’m not sure if parents somehow get this idea into their heads from their own childhood memories of Cinderella, but it never made sense to me.  I didn’t balk at it, nor did I have any particular reasons to be out late.  But I always used to picture hooded figures lurking just inside doorways across the world, and drunk drivers pulled over at rest stops – all watching the seconds tick down.  Then, at precisely midnight, they would shake their fist at the night and flood into the highways and byways to wreak their mayhem on unwary citizens who had scoffed at the admonitions of their parents.

Last night, at 11:15 or so, I wasn’t quite ready for bed.  I thought I’d hit the corner convenience store and pick up my usual drinks for the next day’s gym visit, instead of waiting until morning.

As I entered the store, jangling the little bell, the kid at the counter hailed me, grinning broadly as if we were old friends.  He wore a lanyard with a very large, laminated name card, which contained his name in dark lettering:  “Aaron.”

“Haven’t seen you in here in a while,” Aaron called to me, as I perused the shelves.

“Well, I’ve been here, so you must have been out,” I returned in a friendly tone.

“Yeah.  I got suspended for two weeks,” he admitted, unabashed despite the presence of a couple of other patrons in the store.  This seemed an unusual amount of honesty from a stranger working his shift, and yet he struck me as completely sincere.  There was something about him that I liked.

While I bought my things, I asked him why he’d gotten suspended.  The next thing I knew, we were deep in conversation, both of us standing on our respective sides of a counter, with me still holding my bag of goods.  I glanced at my watch. Just past midnight.

The witching hour has begun, I thought to myself.

Between irregular customers stopping in for lottery tickets or cigarettes, Aaron and I continued to talk.  As the flow of customers died down even further, he asked if I’d join him outside on the curb so he could get in a cigarette.  We sat on the cool concrete, where Aaron shared his story openly with me.  At only 22 years old, he’d been through a lifetime already.

His father had been in prison since Aaron was only six for a violent crime perpetrated upon Aaron himself, as a means of manipulating his mother.

This talkative and winsome kid had already been in a gang, been stabbed three times, and been addicted to heroin.  He recounted what addiction felt like to him, the toll it took on his body.

He’d dropped out of high school and was now trying to complete his G.E.D. for the second time because he’d reached the three-day limit for absences the first time around.  He didn’t think he’d ever do college, because he couldn’t read well.  He told me with no little emotion about a teacher who had caused him to feel stupid, embarrassed, in grade school because he could not read.

His best friend had been shot and killed with a rifle at point blank range, in a drug deal gone bad.  That’s when Aaron decided he needed to kick the habit and get his life together.  That was less than a year ago.

It was now getting on 1:00 AM, and my morning would have me up at 4:30.  But I didn’t want to break off conversation with this kid.  It was like he hadn’t talked to anyone on a real level in years.  Maybe longer.

I asked him what his dreams were.  He told me that he had two:  to be a famous rapper; and to go around speaking to at-risk teens and tell them his story, in hopes of convincing them to change before they ended up with ruined lives.  Or dead like his friend.  When he mentioned his friend again, his eyes glassed over with emotion.  He felt it happen.  He told me he hadn’t really cried about it, but probably needed to at some point.  I agreed.

I asked if I could hear some of his music, and he played some for me from his iPhone.  He was good.  “I don’t want to swear so much it it, though,” he told me as F-bombs dropped in the song, chagrined as if I were a priest.  “I want to sound smarter.”

Another woman rolled up to the store, and Aaron hopped up and opened the door for her, following her inside.  I waited outside, leaning against my car and watching through the window at the silent movie playing out on the other side of the glass.  The woman seemed to be having a hard time deciding exactly which lottery tickets would be the right ones, and how many of each were a safe number to assure her winning the millions.  Aaron unraveled rolls of tickets, then spun them back into their plastic sheaths sometimes taking none, sometimes one, sometimes ten.

At one point, as I watched him graciously assisting the woman, Aaron came up close to the window and made a funny face out at me, like we were old pals sharing a private joke.  I felt like I’d known him much longer than two hours.

Meanwhile, figures appeared out of the shadows at the edge of the lot two young guys in late high school or early college.  One approached me quickly and confidently, with the other following, never taking his eyes from the pavement under his feet.  They had the familiar look of kids who wanted to try to bum a cigarette.  I was preparing to tell them that I don’t smoke, when the front runner said with as much charm as he could manage, “Excuse me, sir, would you mind giving us a ride to Whitman?”

Whitman is not far but it isn’t close.  It was now 1:30, and it would be at least a half-hour round trip.

I smiled and cocked my head to the side, raising an eyebrow.  “You have exactly thirty seconds to tell me why I should give you a ride, and to convince me that you aren’t planning to rob or murder me.”

The quiet one of the pair looked like he legitimately wanted to turn and walk away without further ado.  The talker didn’t lose a beat, however.  “You can frisk me if you want, sir, we just really need a ride.”  As he spoke, he began emptying the pockets of his pants and hoodie onto the ground at his feet, as if I were a police officer:  an iPhone, a set of earphones, some gum.  I’m not going to lie, I was a little amused at the kid’s antics and his tenacity at getting a ride.  He reminded me of Eddie Haskell from Leave It To Beaver.

“I’m Erik,” I said.  “What are you guys’ names?  How old are you?”

“I’m Jack.  This is Joe,” the talker said, nodding toward his friend.  “I’m going to be a junior in high school.  Joe is too.  Right, Joe?”

Joe nodded, still visibly uncomfortable at the exchange.

“OK, Jack and Joe.  So how is it that you’re needing a ride at 1:30 in the morning?”

Jack spoke right up, “We were down at the sports dome.  Joe’s mother said she would get us, but he called her ten minutes after she said to, so she said she wouldn’t pick us up.  We’ve just been walking around for hours, trying to get a ride.”

Aaron was just emerging from the store now.  I told him I was going to give these kids a ride and that I’d connect with him on Facebook when I got home.  “Definitely do.  Thanks for talking,” he said.  “It made my shift go by really fast so far.”

I hadn’t officially told the actual boys that I’d give them the ride, but my announcement to Aaron was enough for them, and they were already making themselves quite comfortable in the back seat of my car.   I just shook my head and laughed.  This was turning out to be quite the night.

I headed up Route 18 toward Whitman, talking with the boys.  Jack answered everything with much energy and many words.  Joe said nothing, except when I asked him a direct question which only he could answer.  Jack asked me what I do for a living.  “I drive kids in trouble home at two o’clock in the morning,” I said.  This was not far from the truth.

Once over the Whitman line, I asked for further clarification on directions to their destination.  “OK, what now?  Is it far off the main strip here?”

“Well …” Jack began, cautiously.  “Actually, my friend in Whitman said we can’t stay there.”  Jack hadn’t used his phone while he’d been in my car.  I had not even noticed a light representing an exchange of texts.  I said as much to him and inquired as to how it is that he knew this only after asking me for the ride and getting in my car.

He answered vaguely.  “I don’t know.  He just said we couldn’t.  So … could you drive us to Weymouth?”

If Whitman is not close, Weymouth is downright far.

“Well, Jack,” I said wryly.  “I have three choices.  I could drive back home to Bridgewater and let you off where I found you.  I could drop you off here on Route 18, which gets you further to Weymouth than you’d be by now walking.  Or I could be an extra-specially-nice guy and drive you all the way to Weymouth at past two in the morning.”

I let that sit.  A few moments later, Jack piped up.  “So, you’ll drive us?”

I drove them.

Once to Weymouth – Jack revealed that he actually had no idea where he was going.  He said it was his girlfriend’s house and that she lived on Charles Street.  That was allegedly near a Lord & Taylor.  I knew of neither.

We pulled over at a 24-hour CVS, where Jack hopped out to see if a clerk could help with directions.  I shot back over my shoulder, “Joe … you don’t talk much, do you?”

“Nope,” he answered, not sullenly but matter-of-factly.

“And does your friend always keep talking like that?” I said, smirking.

“Yup,” he said.  I saw in the rear-view mirror  that a smile had cracked his face, as well.

Jack was back.  “They don’t know,” he said, and then just sat silently, as if I’d miraculously solve this, being the adult.

I do love teens.

An older gentleman came across the lot, using crutches.  Ever the charming one, Jack put his window down and asked for help.  The man said he thought there was a Charles Street after the next left and then left and then past a bar.  Not much, but something nonetheless.

We headed that way.  Jack began exclaiming that it looked familiar.  His voice didn’t sound like he’d ever seen any of this a day in his life.

We drove up and down the road twice before I pulled over.  “Call your girlfriend,” I suggested.  It was now nearly 2:30.  Joe got out his phone.  Bloop.  Bleep.

“Hey, baby,” he said in a completely put-on voice, apparently reserved for the ladies.  “We’re around your area.  Can you tell me how to get to you from the Walmart? … Uh huh … Oh … I see … OK.”  Then he hung up.  “She said she’s sleeping and she doesn’t want to talk right now,” he informed me.

Joe followed up with the most words in a row he’d said all night. “I feel so sorry for this guy,” he said, indicating me.

I felt a little sorry for me, as well.

I said a quick prayer and then headed up the street one more time.  I peered into the darkness on both sides of the road.  Up one side street, at the next block, I could make out a street sign that might have had a “C” in the name.  I turned up that way.  Sure enough, it was Charles Street.

“There’s her apartment building!” Jack shouted, pointing.  I was already mentally trying to see if I remembered my way back home.

Jack thanked me profusely.  Joe delivered his runner-up line of the night: “Thanks, man.  I really appreciate it.”  Like a cheesy after-school infomercial, I smiled and told them to stay out of trouble and stay in school.  And then I was off.

I got back to my area sometime after 3:00.  I stopped in at the convenience store once more, to tell Aaron about the crazy goose chase I’d just been on with strangers.  It was funny, because Aaron was as much as stranger as they had been.  It didn’t feel like it.  He made an ostentatious and humorous display of shock and dismay at my eventful ride.  Then we said goodbye and I headed home.

I wasn’t in bed until after 3:30.  I did not get up for the gym at 4:30.

My late night adventures were certainly not convenient, I’ll admit.  True caring rarely is.  But I managed to deliver two deserted kids to safe shelter, and to have some meaningful conversation with a new, young friend who seemed to be in need of someone to listen.

As for nothing good happening after midnight, I’m still not willing to concur.  However, based on this experience, I might be willing to concede that nothing easy happens past midnight.

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