Friday, March 05, 2010

Day Five: The Kindness of Strangers

I think I will be revisiting this subject this month, but for now I have only a tiny window of time between obligations today, so I'll be uncharacteristically brief. I will pose a question to you, Dear Readers: when have you experienced the kindness of strangers? Please share your favorite anecdote on the topic.

Today in my writing class, one of my students told a beautiful story about she and her husband picking up a hippie hitchhiker on vacation when they were first married. They had been fighting about money, and my student thought she wanted a divorce, to get out while the getting was good. This stranger sensed the tension in the car and ended up counseling them to rethink the situation. Which they did, and they're still married. To this day, she believes they were visited by some kind of angel that day. Pretty cool, even if I was skeptical.

It's surprising when strangers decide to help you out when there's no visible benefit to them. When I lived in Northampton, MA--a big town with a small town vibe--it was very hard to get around town in icy winter. Sometimes I would be racing around the slick, snowy streets, desperately trying to finish my shopping before my meter ran out. Often I wouldn't make it. But sometimes I would come back to the car expecting a ticket and see that I had an hour left. Meaning some kind soul had noticed my meter had expired, and decided to save me a ticket. Just because. I would stand there in front of my unticketed car, breathing my frosty breath into my scarf, agog. Someone did this expecting no thanks, no recognition. That's pretty amazing.

One time, in San Diego about 10 years ago, I had jury duty and decided to take the trolley rather than try to park downtown. Only I didn't do that very often, and didn't know that some stations don't have anyone working there. I had no cash, and the machine didn't take cards. I stood there, heart pounding, watching the train pulling into the station, knowing I was going to miss it, knowing I was going to be late. And then a woman about my age swooped in front of me, popped four dollars into the machine, and bought me a ticket. I was so surprised I almost didn't thank her.

When I got on the train, she had an empty seat next to her, so I sat down and thanked her properly. She had long, brown braids and a beautiful smile, dressed very casually. I don't remember why she was headed downtown. When I said how kind she was, she waved dismissively: "Not at all. I can tell you would have done the exact same thing."

The thing is, I'm not sure I would have. It was such a decisive, instantaneous gesture. I always think of these things much later. She just went for it. I admired that. I asked how I could pay her back, and she said if I really wanted to, she was in Balboa Park every Sunday afternoon for the drumming circle next to Pepper Grove. And I meant to go, I really did. I thought about it often over the years.

But I never did go. And I never paid her back. I'm terrible. I'm still grateful to her, though.


Anonymous said...

Nice topic. I love the idea of the hippie/angel counseling the marriage. Did she write a story about it? It kind of begs for one.

I'll share the first story that came to mind. I'm sure there are more, but this one always makes me laugh.

My ex-husband and I took a spur of the moment trip to Alaska our sophomore year of college. We drove a Ford Festiva, which, if you don't remember, was like the el cheapo version of a Mini. Not at all the rugged type (although excellent for rollercoastering up and down the frost heaves in the road). On our second week there, we elected to take the ferry to a remote island having a logging festival. After the exciting chop-em-up games, we went out for a scenic drive through the deep woods on the all-gravel roads. At the furthest point from humanity, our car got stuck in the gravel, and we could go no further. This was 1992 -- pre-cellphone, as if such service would have reached the island anyway. After a long time, my ex decided to hike back down the road until he found help. I sat there in the car (covered with Berkeley and Grateful Dead stickers), wondering how long it would take one of the many black bears to open the car like a tin can and eat me.

After a long time, this crazy-huge truck came barreling along from the opposite direction, and it lurched to a stop. Four burly lumberjacks piled out, assessed the situation, LIFTED MY CAR WITH THEIR BARE HANDS, then set it down on firmer ground, all the while snickering about "this Californee plasteek car." And then they were on their merry way with hardly a word thrown my way. Don't remember how I found my ex. (Try not to think about him, heh.)

~Caroline B

Stephanie said...

There was the stranger with grey spiky hair and twinkly blue eyes that approached us in the vet parking lot when the time came to put down the first of our two dogs. She gave us the name of a different doctor/office that she thought might provide a better experience for everyone in our situation. Indeed they did. I always think of her as an angel.

Oh and during the happy time of fertility treatments, there was the nurse that picked up the tab for about $800 of meds via some organization she had access to...she was much more than a stranger actually, but that move brought me to tears, which in reality didn't take much being the hormonal, depressed, crazy person I was at the time. Nonetheless I will remember it always, that, along with her encouragement and kind words throughout.

Now if only I can figure out how to become the recipient of some burly lumberjack kindness!

Joan said...

In 1979 when the family were holidaying in Spain, we left our camp site to spend the day in Madrid. While we were exploring the city, it poured with rain. I was aware that the load of washing I'd hung on the clothesline would be sodden and we would not be able to get it dry before our planned departure. ( No dryers available.)
We returned that evening to find our washing still on the line, but hung differently and quite dry. Someone had not only taken it down when the rain came, but put it all back out again when the sun came out. I never found out who it was.

Sam said...

What awesome stories. Make me feel all misty. Except for Caroline's burly lumberjacks lifting the car with their bare hands--that made me laugh my head off. :)