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Hackie: The Kindness of Strangers


Published May 20, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

My mission was simple and straightforward: Move Sonata Gustafson from her temporary home at a Shelburne Road motel to her new temporary quarters — a trailer located at the North Beach Campground. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, right? When I pulled up to the motel for the pickup, I saw that it might be anything but.

The ground-level door to Sonata's room was open, and I could see two people, a woman and a man, moving around the space. They appeared to be methodically stuffing Sonata's, well, stuff into clear plastic laundry bags. Parked nearby was a Shelburne Police cruiser. No lights were flashing; the vehicle was just sitting there.

Deducing that this was going to take a while, I cut the engine. A police officer ambled up to my open window. "How's it going?" he asked. He seemed friendly and relaxed to a degree that was slightly disconcerting.

"Oh, things are good, all considered," I replied. "I'm scheduled to pick up Sonata Gustafson. Is there a problem?"

"No, you're fine. I'm just here as a precautionary measure, you could say. Hey, how's the taxi business these days?"

"As lousy as you could imagine. No restaurants, no bars, barely any airport runs — that doesn't leave much. I'm lucky to be getting some calls like this from the social service agencies."

I could tell the officer wanted to keep this chat going, but just then, the woman emerged from the room carting a loaded bag.

"Hi, I'm Michelle," she introduced herself. "I'm helping out Sonata's caseworker with this. Sorry for the delay, but you know how it goes."

"No problem, Michelle. Where is Sonata?"

"Oh, she's still in the room, lying on the bed. She twisted her ankle, so she can't participate much with the packing. The guy in there is Evan, her friend. Can you take him with her over to the campground? He's been helping her out."

"Sure, that will be fine," I replied. "Let me open the back so we can load in her belongings."

I left it to Evan and Michelle, two thirtyish-year-olds, to carry the bags. Though I still can hoist some cargo when necessary, I've reached the ripe old age when I'm happy to defer to younger and stronger stevedores when they're up for the task.

Eventually, Sonata appeared at the door to her room — a tall and visibly beleaguered young woman. From her brave and trembling smile, I intuited that this person's tribulations long preceded the onset of the pandemic. 

Evan helped her hobble to the taxi, and the two of them settled into the back seats. Michelle appeared at the open sliding door, and the two women exchanged a few words. She then thanked me again for my patience, and I closed the door behind her via the dashboard control. Firing up the engine, I announced, "We're outta here."

As we pulled out, Sonata immediately, with no prompting, began to download her life story. It began with her single mom in Rome, N.Y., and spun downhill from there: unwanted teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and a series of abusive boyfriends.

The whole nine yards, I thought as I took in the story. In my experience, some severely traumatized people can grow catatonic. Others, like Sonata, fall at the opposite end of the spectrum: They feel the need to share the painful details of their lives with anyone willing to listen. I was willing to listen; it was the least I could do.

While she spoke, Evan kept his arm around her in a comforting gesture of support. He was a scruffy but good-looking man with sandy-brown hair, a lanky frame and an easygoing demeanor.

After Sonata had her say, Evan asked, "Hey, do you know if they'll let me stay over with Sonata at the campground?"

"Jeez, I really don't know," I replied. "My guess would be no, but we can find out when we get there. So, what brings you to Burlington, Evan? Or are you a local?"

"No, I'm just passing through. For years, I've been following the Dead legacy bands on tour, but that's all ground to a stop with this friggin' virus."

"Do you ever work, like, a conventional job when you're not touring?"

"Oh, yeah," he replied. "I make stone walls. I learned this back when I was living in Boulder — you know, Colorado. Rich folks there pay big bucks for a stone fence when you know how to do it right. And this guy I learned from, he was, like, a master craftsman."

In the rearview mirror, I could see Sonata nuzzling Evan's shoulder. "You got to stay with me, baby," she said. "You know I need your help."

It scared me just how alone and vulnerable Sonata was in this world. I got the sense that, like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, she had always depended on the kindness of strangers.

She will be safe with Evan was the thought that popped into my head. Despite her history of abuse at the hands of men, I had the distinct feeling that he was a genuinely caring person and not scheming to use and abuse her. Plus, Michelle had sort of vouched for him, and that carried some weight.

I then had this thought: What, if anything, would I have done if I felt otherwise about Evan's intentions? That remains an interesting hypothetical question.

When we arrived at the campground, the gate was locked. Michelle had given me a number to call should this exigency arise, and I got through to the contact person. He told me they were just finishing up a staff meeting and I could unload Sonata's bags by the gate.

Pivoting to face the back seat, I relayed the news. "So, the guy told me we can unload your belongings right here, and they'll be out shortly to take you to your trailer. Then you can ask about Evan."

Sonata's distress was palpable. "What if they don't let you stay with me?" she said to Evan.

"Don't you worry," he replied, giving her a gentle squeeze. "We'll figure something out." m

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.