I was ducking the wind and stressing about last-minute Christmas shopping last year as I walked toward Burlington Coat Factory in the Monroeville Mall annex.
I heard a voice -- didn't fully get what was said or see who said it.
"Do you know where we can find a taxi?" one of two young women together then asked me in a slightly British accent. They looked to be from India.
"Taxi? This is the suburbs."
They looked confused, so I added, "There aren't any cabs, just stores and cars. How'd you get out here?"
They'd taken a bus from Oakland and found out too late that the last return bus left more than two hours earlier at 7 p.m. They were grad students at Carnegie Mellon University but looked younger and smaller -- and worried.
I was tired from a long day. If there ever were cabs in Monroeville, they wouldn't be here at 9:30 on a Sunday night.
"If we called a cab," I explained, "it'd take an hour to get here and cost you about 30 bucks."
Their faces fell further. They must have been desperate, to ask a total stranger. I couldn't think of who could help, and I couldn't leave them out there alone in an empty mall parking lot with the cold wind whipping.
I didn't have any place I had to be or anyone waiting on me, so I said, "I'll take you to Oakland." Their eyes widened.
"I'm not dangerous," I said. "Are you dangerous?"
This made them smile.
"Oh, c'mon! It's Christmas!"
And so I jollied and nudged them along, trying to sound fun so none of us would think much about this being a bit strange and risky.
On down the Parkway East, I chattered nervously and they were a little shy. Trying to reassure them, I told them about a time when I was in grad school, on a long walk home with arms full of groceries, when it started to pour. Rain pelted my face, ran down my hair and neck, and collected in my shoes. I was soaked and freezing when a car pulled up and the guy opened the passenger door.
I just stood there initially, but I was so miserable I got in. I told the foreign students, "I figured he wasn't a rapist when I heard NPR on his radio." This was always a good punch line except, I now realized, with foreigners who don't understand what NPR is. So I said, "He was perfectly nice. It turned out fine."
I quieted down. The young woman studying environmental science had taken the one studying business shopping to console her about her boyfriend having flown back to India that morning. Then she said they were thinking about going to New York over the break. Should they?
"Oh, New York at Christmas!" I gushed. The Rockefeller Center tree at night! The Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall -- expensive but worth it. The Lord & Taylor windows! The real carriages lined up outside The Plaza! The drivers wear top hats and decorate their horses' hair with red ribbons.
"It's, you know, real Christmassy," I said.
Oh. How could I explain "Christmassy," especially to people who probably don't know Tiny Tim, "Miracle on 34th Street," caroling or white Christmas?
Suddenly I realized I should have told them to see a play, go to MOMA, tour the U.N.
But then we came to Craig Street, so I just pulled over and helped them get their bags out. They looked so happy to be safe and home. I hugged them and said, "Merry Christmas!"
They were already down the sidewalk when it hit me. "Sorry!" I yelled. "You probably don't celebrate Christmas."
They called back, "We do now."
It was the best moment of the best part of my 2011 Christmas.
Sheila Garred can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Holiday Herald" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.