On the Kindness of Strangers…
At some time or other, we have all been touched by the kindness of strangers. I’m not talking about someone helping you with a heavy suitcase down the staircase at the train station or holding the door for you when you are loaded with shopping bags. Those are actions of the moment, without much thought behind them, more like reflexes of good manners. What I’m referring to are actions that are the results of conscious decisions to help others with no thought of personal gain.
The other day I was listening to ‘This American Life’ on NPR, and the story was about unusual acts of kindness by strangers. What was unusual about them was that some of the stories were not even intended as acts of kindness. Like, the guy who walked along the subway platform, telling each waiting passenger that were either in or out. The story goes on to narrate how inspiring it was to be told ‘you’re in’, though it meant nothing and was just a random muttering from a stranger. Was there an intention here to help people feel good? I would rather doubt it, but the end result was that it made others happy.
Listening to the stories, I was reminded of an incident, two summers ago, when I was subject to an act of kindness – actually, more like a present – from a stranger.
It was around 2 pm and I was waiting for a train to downtown, to meet a friend for a movie. As usual I had a book with me, and sat reading as I was a few minutes early. Suddenly I got this feeling that eyes were upon me and looking up saw this person watching me intently. I looked around; lots of people on the platform, so no need to worry. Ignoring the watching eyes I returned my attention to the book.
Time for the train and I got up and walked out. The person approached me smiling and started speaking. It was easy to say, ‘sorry, I don’t speak Spanish’. He extended a small card towards me and kept talking in a mix of English and Spanish. The only words I could get were… ‘for you… books… to read’. He pushed the card into my hand. I looked down and saw that it was a Barnes & Noble gift card. Like a true New Yorker I thought… Oh, the guy wants to sell me the card – probably blank. Yeah, right!
By this time, the train was approaching the platform. I tried to give the card back to him. But he wouldn’t take it and kept explaining. What I could grasp from his talk was this: he was a visitor to the city and was going back that day. Did not have time to use the card, and so wanted to give it to me.
The train doors were open, and it was easier to say ‘thank you’ and get in to the train than continue arguing with him. And I was careful to sit far away from where he sat. I pushed the card into the book I was reading.
I did not think of it further till I was passing in front of the Barnes & Noble store on Broadway (which has since closed). Went in and checked to see if the card was of any value. How much do you think was on that card? 78 dollars! I was amazed, to say the least. And truly felt ashamed at being so suspicious of the guy’s intentions!
Why did he pick me to make a present of the card? I cannot make a guess, except maybe it was because I was the only one reading a serious book on the station platform.
I still remember two of the books I bought with that card… ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas’ by Tom Robbins, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed!