It was a cold night in late December fifteen years ago. I was on the interstate near Philadelphia when the snow began to fall. I was driving home to New Jersey after a series of interviews for medical residency programs. I was tired but eager to get home to attend a performance of The Nutcracker, an annual family tradition.
Traffic was at a standstill. Looking at the dashboard, I noticed the temperature gauge climbing. Soon, the engine was smoking. “Oh no,” I thought, “I am alone, in a strange city, in a rough area, dressed in a suit and pumps.” I had five dollars, no AAA card, and no phone. I eased the car to the side of the road. I had two options: Hope that someone would stop to help, or hoof it to the next exit.
I popped the hood, got out of the car, and looked into the engine. It was an incomprehensible jumble of steaming metal and hoses. A man stopped and asked if I needed help. Peering under the hood, he reached for the radiator hose and pointed to fluid leaking from a crack. He offered to add some water to the radiator so that I could drive the car to a service station. I accepted his offer. He retrieved a thermos from his truck and poured in some water. Then he closed the hood and wished me luck.
I drove along the shoulder and prayed Hail Marys until I reached the next exit. The engine began to smoke again, but I made it to a convenience store. I sat in the car, afraid. This wasn’t a...