The Stranger Who Changed My Life: “Fill Her Tank First”

You never know when a chance encounter will transform you.

The summer of 1975 I’d just graduated from college in Southern California and received a 1968 Ford Capri for a graduation present. I had my first job, in Los Angeles. One Sunday night, thinking myself a very independent grown-up, I left my uncle’s place in South Laguna after a visit, without confessing to him that I had less than an eighth of a tank of gas and no cash to buy more en route to L.A. I pulled onto the Pacific Coast Highway and watched the needle descend as I headed north. When I started running on fumes, I pulled into a gas station. There was no self-serve then; there were no credit cards, no ATMs.

I begged the guy at the station. 
I could write him a check for gas, I said, or I could sleep in my car and try to walk to a town with a bank the next morning. As he was informing me that I could sleep in my car but he’d have me arrested, a station wagon pulled up to the next pump. The driver—a thin, plain, middle-aged guy—overheard the tail end of my failed plea. As the attendant went to serve him, he nodded at me. “Fill her tank first,” he said.

“Really?” I said. Hope bloomed. “Oh, thank you. Thank you. But please. I just need two bucks’ worth. I just need to get home.”

“Fill it,” he repeated to the attendant. Then to me, “You’ll do the same one day, for someone else.”

I keep looking for that hapless young person, hoping to save her night on the road. Meanwhile, in case she never shows up, I try for other acts of random kindness. That quiet driver is always at the pump a few feet away, instructing the attendant to fill mine first.

Lucy Ferriss’s most recent book is The Lost Daughter.

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