Russel Gonzalez meets a helpful visitor -- 14 years apart.
Gonzalez eased his disabled car over into the inside breakdown lane, got out and popped his trunk. As he was rooting around in the back, it was slowly dawning on him that he had a big problem. He can't recall now exactly what it was; either his spare was messed up or he didn't have a jack, but he was starting to realize he was stuck on the wrong side of about five lanes of speeding traffic with no way to get out of there.
Right about then, an old brown Honda Accord pulled in behind him. A middle-aged black guy was behind the wheel. He stopped his car and just sat there, waiting for Gonzalez to approach.
Gonzalez did so and asked him for a ride to a gas station. The guy just nodded, and Gonzalez got in. As the man eased the car back into the main lanes, he barely even looked at Gonzalez. It was then and only then that Gonzalez thought that he might have made the worst mistake of his life.
"I absolutely thought he might have been a serial killer," he says now. "But by that time I had already committed to getting in the car with him to go to the gas station. I was like, 'Holy shit, what if he just keeps driving?' He was just so quiet and he just looked straight ahead the whole time. I was thinking, 'Oh shit, this is just weird.'"
The man did say enough for Gonzalez to pick up what he thought was a Nigerian accent, and Gonzalez noticed that there was a Bible on his dashboard. The man took Gonzalez to a gas station, where Gonzalez was able to phone a tow-truck driver buddy of his to come haul his car out of danger. He thanked his mystery angel one last time, and again, the man just nodded and drove away.
"I was just like, 'Holy shit, that was creepy," Gonzalez remembers. "Of course, that burned a memory in my head."
Fast forward to this past Sunday.
By now, Gonzalez had won national fame as the hip-hop producer The Are, but that hasn't made him or his loved ones immune to car disasters.
Around 3 p.m., Gonzalez was headed up the North Freeway to rendezvous with his mom, who had hosted Gonzalez's daughter for a Saturday sleepover in The Woodlands. Gonzalez lives downtown and so he and his mom would usually meet halfway, in a parking lot at the Airtex exit.
Gonzalez arrived on time, but his usually prompt mom was late. Finally she called and said that she was very close by, but that she'd had a blow-out on the freeway. Gonzalez got back in his car, U-turned under the freeway and parked in a restaurant parking lot on the feeder road near where his mom had pulled over in the slow-lane shoulder.
Gonzalez ran across the feeder road, told his mom and daughter to get out and get off the freeway and wait for him in the restaurant, jogged up to the car, and assessed the situation. The tire was shredded, and he would have to change it, during the hottest part of one of the hottest days in Houston history, all with I-45 traffic blasting past at 80 miles an hour.
After popping the trunk, he glanced behind him and saw a car in the shoulder approaching with its hazards blinking. As it got closer, Gonzalez saw that it was a very old Honda Accord, and while the body was brown, the hood was tan. As it got even closer, he could see there was a past-middle-age black man behind the wheel, and as the Accord came to a stop, yep, there was that Bible on the dashboard.
"It was like 'Ho-lee shit! It's that dude, that same dude!" Gonzalez says. "What are the odds of this? What does this dude do? Just drive around looking for people like me all day? I wanted to laugh, but I was kinda in shock."
This time around the man got out. Once again, he was a man of few words and bold actions. He instantly took command of the situation.
"He seriously just walked up to the trunk, nodded, lifted the little carpet thing and pulled the spare out," Gonzalez says. "He didn't say anything, like 'Hey, you need some help?' or 'Let's get you out of here quick.' No questions. Nothing. I was just like, 'Ho-kaaay, I guess he's here to help again."
Gonzalez says the Freeway Angel was preternaturally calm. Despite the fact that he was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a necktie, the man never seemed to sweat, and he paid absolutely no mind to the traffic whizzing past at 80 mph.
Gonzalez says he tried to help him but only felt like he was getting in the Freeway Angel's way. The spare was on the car in a jiffy, and the Freeway Angel finally spoke to Gonzalez.
"Be careful," he said, as he handed Gonzalez the shredded tire he'd just replaced. "It's hot."
And there was that same Nigerian accent.
Though he asked for nothing, Gonzalez insisted on giving the man $20. He said, "God bless," and walked off, got in his car and left.
Gonzalez says he was too in shock to remind the man of the 1997 incident. And he has a more metaphysical reason for not asking.
"Everybody asks me that," he says. "There was something so surreal about the whole thing that I didn't want to ruin it," he says. "I didn't want to taint the whole thing with a dialogue about what happened 14 years ago. I just kinda wanted to let it play the way it was supposed to play. I just didn't feel like it was necessary. And on top of all that, it's chaos out there, burning up hot, too loud for conversation, cars flyin' by. I just wanted to let it be."
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Gonzalez says he's pretty much an agnostic, so he's not buying into these events as the doings of his guardian angel or the workings of the hand of God, though he does see them as a testament to the Freeway's Angel's faith. (You've heard of walking the walk. This guy drives the drive.)
"I do believe in circumstance, and it looks like the timing was right," Gonzalez says. "And maybe this guy is out there all the time. Maybe that's his mission in life. He's a Christian, and he helps people out. That part is explainable."
What's phenomenal to Gonzalez is the time and space involved. "That these things happened on opposite sides of town 14 years apart and he could come along both times at that given moment," he marvels. "I can change a tire in 15 minutes, right, and I'm gone. So you've got a 15-minute window where he had to be there. And second of all, he would have to be not helping someone else right then. Third, the space, the distance. What if he'd been on Woodlands Parkway then instead of where he was. It's just crazy."
Indeed it is. And it's got us wondering here at the Hair Balls Traffic Desk. Has this African Freeway Angel helped anybody else out there?