On Friday night, as darkness fell early my car broke down — and that’s how I met Carlos, who came to give me a tow, courtesy of AAA.
Carlos had tattoos all the way up to his chin and some kind of attitude. He’s the kind of person I rarely get to meet, or get to know. But there we were – he had to tow my car all the way from Ventura to Santa Monica (long story, but don’t ever back up your Audi over a curb because the front of the car might come off), long enough for his story to spill out of him in slow bits, and then big, remarkable ones.
He’s married, with three kids and another on the way. No more kids after this, he says — he’s getting “clipped,” as he put it. It’s enough working four 16-hour shifts a week driving tow trucks. He likes the work, doesn’t mind hauling ass all the way to LA. But it doesn’t leave him a lot of time to take the kids to their sports. All boys. One made the basketball team and his Nike LeBrons cost $180.
Carlos grew up in Oxnard, an agricultural town along the 101 highway. His parents are from Mexico but he doesn’t speak Spanish — they never bothered to teach him. Instead, he and all his cousins ran with the local gangs. That was the life. Some made it. Some didn’t.
I told Carlos I was a journalist — he’d never met one — and then I asked if he’d voted. That was when he turned to me and blurted out, “Don’t judge me.” Turns out Carlos had gone to prison for three years. He told me this to explain why he couldn’t vote. I explained that in California he still could vote anyway.
What were you in for? I asked. Armed robbery, he confessed. When he was 18 and running around on the streets of Oxnard, his friends put him up to robbing a guy on the street. Carlos did the deed. Three months later, he got pulled into a lineup and identified. Boom — off he went to prison for three years.
Did his friends feel guilty, since it was their idea? Nah, Carlos said. In his neighborhood, you just went away for a while, and when you were back you were back.
When he got out, by now in his 20s, Carlos determined he wasn’t ever going back to the gang life. He met and married his wife, and worked odd jobs.
But one day, about six years ago, he wasn’t well. He ended up in the ER and they found he’d had a brain aneurysm. He hung between life and death in the ICU. For six weeks.
Thank goodness you had insurance, I said. No, Carlos replied, he didn’t. He’d only been working part-time and pickup gigs. His wife signed Carlos up to Obamacare at the hospital, in the ER.
“People can say whatever they want about Obama, but I ain’t never saying nothin’,” he said. “That saved my life.”
I let that hang in the cab of the tow truck for a while. I’d never met anyone for whom Obamacare meant the difference between life and death. Or life and a lifetime of debt. Here was a real guy, one of the 35 million people added to the insurance rolls because of the Affordable Care Act, for whom this legislation was a life-altering gift.
And he didn’t even vote.
Carlos still has excruciating headaches and his body feels different since the aneurysm. He’s only 36 and his boss doesn’t believe him and anyway he just powers through.
One of his best friends still lives the gang life, sleeping on the street. Occasionally Carlos lets him shower at his house, sleep on the couch. Himself, he wants to get out of Oxnard. He doesn’t want his kids set on the path that defined his youth.
I told him about me. About traveling the world as a journalist. Carlos looked at me like I was an alien; he’d only ever been on a plane once, to go to Oregon. He’s never left the country. I told him about France, about the food, the people, the culture. I told him about the wonder of travel.
By then we’d gotten to my house. We parted ways with me grateful to be reminded of the real people affected by these midterms, and the policy decisions of our government.
My car is still a mess, though.