Everyone has that one memory that still weighs on their conscience, years or even decades later. For Kevin Freedman, a 38-year-old governance consultant and member of the business faculty at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, it involves a Slurpee run and a stolen Ford Taurus.
Now, nearly 21 years later, he's launched a quest to find the woman he inadvertently wronged and tell her that he's sorry.
On a hot August day in 1998, Freedman, then 17, was working a split shift at the community pool in Winnipeg where he was a lifeguard and swimming instructor. Earlier that summer, he had totalled his car after crashing into a cow that had unexpectedly wandered onto a darkened rural road outside the city. He still had an outstanding parking ticket that he needed to pay during his break, and was about to set off on foot when a co-worker, Jocelyne McKie, told him to take her car instead and bring her back a Slurpee from 7-Eleven.
"She asked, 'You know which car is mine, right?'" Freedman told The Washington Post. "And I said, 'Oh, yeah, absolutely.'"
McKie's car was a light-coloured 1990s Ford Taurus, which was "every second or third car on the road" at the time, Freedman said. He spotted it in the parking lot right away. The windows were down, and the doors were unlocked. The car wouldn't start on the first try, but he drove away without thinking much of it.
After stopping to get money from an ATM, Freedman returned to the Ford only to find that it wouldn't start. He had already been reluctant to borrow it, he told The Post, since he had never really driven anyone else's car without them being there. But McKie had told him that she trusted him, reminding Freedman that they had known each other for a long time. Now, sitting in the front of the bank, he kept nervously turning the key over and over again, waiting to hear the engine turn. Nothing happened.
After a few more minutes, Freedman remembered something: When he was leaving the pool, he had only been able to start the car after he put his seat belt on. Maybe, he reasoned with himself, there was some kind of new technology in the Taurus that he didn't know about. He buckled up and then turned the key again. It worked. Relieved, he drove to the police station where he had planned to pay his parking ticket.
The building was located in downtown Winnipeg, which has long been considered Canada's car theft capital and previously held the North American record for the most car thefts per capita. Instinctively, Freedman locked the doors when he left the Taurus in the parking lot. He returned a short time later, after being told that he needed to go to a different office to pay the ticket. But he couldn't manage to unlock the door.
For several minutes, Freedman stood there, fumbling helplessly with the keys. Then, a group of parking patrol officers showed up.
"Oh, I've got a Ford just like this at home," he recalls one of the officers telling him, after he explained the situation. "Sometimes, the keys are a little wonky. You just have to know how to do it."
The officer took the keys from him and, on his second try, managed to unlock the Ford. The technique, he informed Freedman, was "all in the wrist."
Once again, Freedman struggled to get the car started, and he began to seriously worry that he had damaged the ignition. After finishing up his errands, he returned the Ford back to its original parking spot, leaving the windows down and doors unlocked, just like he had found it. He handed McKie her Slurpee and apologised profusely, telling her that he hoped he hadn't broken her car. She had never had any problems with the key, she told him, but she was sure it was fine.
Later that night, long after McKie had left work, Freedman noticed that her car was still sitting in the parking lot. Panicked and wracked with guilt, he concluded that he must have damaged it so badly that she hadn't been able to drive home. His co-worker had just been trying to do a nice thing, and, in exchange, he had ruined her car.
"I was pretty embarrassed, pretty ashamed," he recalled. "I didn't sleep well that night."
He was in the middle of teaching a swimming lesson the next day when McKie walked in. Immediately, the apologies started pouring out. "I'm so sorry I broke your car," Freedman remembers gushing. "Did you leave it here last night because you couldn't drive it?" But McKie had no idea what he was talking about.
"She said, 'I didn't leave the car,'" Freedman recalled. "Then, it dawned on me."
McKie looked at him. A thought was dawning on her, too. The day before, while Freedman was out running errands, a young woman had reported her car stolen. But because she couldn't remember the license plate number, she had gone home to look it up. The next morning, the woman had returned to the pool with police, only to find her car exactly where she had left it.
"I had taken a stolen car to two police stations, had police help me get into the car, and, essentially, I've felt guilty ever since," Freedman told The Post.
His co-worker was equally horrified. "I remember feeling panicked and a bit spooked about that because I was quite the goody-two-shoes," McKie, who confirmed Freedman's account of the story, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Monday. "So you can imagine that I was quite freaked out about this stolen car thing."
Initially, Freedman wanted to go to the police and confess everything. The teenage lifeguard's friends talked him out of it, pointing out that he would only create more complications for everyone involved, and that there had ultimately been no harm done. In the ensuing decades, he estimates, he's told the story hundreds of times. But the guilt still hasn't gone away, and last month, Freedman began a quest to find the woman so that he could explain and apologise.
"The police probably thought she was nuts, and she probably thought she was a little nuts, and after 20 years I just want to let her know she's not," he said. "It really happened."
Egged on by his friends, who pointed out that in a tightknit city like Winnipeg, most people are connected by only two or three degrees of separation, he turned to social media for help. "Have you ever heard the other side of the story?" he asked on Facebook and Twitter last month. "Do you know this person? Help me find her!" The posts were shared hundreds of times, but so far Freedman hasn't gotten any leads, even after being featured by the CBC this week.
He has, however, been learning that he's not the only one to inadvertently take a stranger's car for a joyride.
"Since I've posted this, I've had probably 30 people send me messages personally to say they had something similar to this happen," Freedman said. "On Reddit, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people that have gone through the same thing."
One possible explanation that he's heard is that auto manufacturers at the time tended to use a standard key, and didn't change it much between vehicles. Since both of the cars involved in the mix-up were probably at least eight years old, the keys could also have been worn down, he said.
Freedman has been told plenty of times that his hunt for the mildly inconvenienced Ford owner is the most Canadian thing ever - one well-known stereotype about his countrymen is that they really love to apologise. But on a more serious note, he said, he's also had a lot of conversations with people over the years about how the story might not have been so funny if he were a person of color.
Though Winnipeg has the largest indigenous population of any city in Canada, systemic racism and discrimination are a persistent problem, Freedman said. (At one point, it was labelled "Canada's most racist city.") A 17-year-old indigenous man likely would have gotten pulled over, not helped back into a stolen car by police, he suspects.
"Certainly, for someone who wasn't white, it would have been much different," he said.