Where the plains of East Africa meet the forested slopes of Mount Kenya nestles the town of Nanyuki. Four years ago I was stranded there on a cold and wet Sunday. My motorcycle had broken down, and having it transported to a garage had cost me my last shilling. I was fifty miles from home. Knowing no one with whom I could stay until morning, when I’d be able to hitch a ride, I chose the sheltered doorway of a small church in which to spend the night.
It was almost dark and I was settling into my doorway when a threadbare, elderly Kikuyu man walked by. We struck up a conversation. The old man, Njoroge, was the pastor of a tiny church. When he learned of my predicament, he invited me to spend the night at his house.
He and his wife were squatters in a dilapidated, abandoned European farmhouse. We warmed ourselves around a cooking fire beside the porch, and they apologized for having no tea to serve me. I saw they had nothing to boil water in anyway. Njoroge’s wife, who spoke neither English nor Swahili, cooked me an immense mound of potatoes mixed with corn and beans, and Njoroge and I talked about religion, white settlers, freedom, and the tragedy of people so desperate for firewood that they cut down the forest.
We talked late into the night, though my Swahili often came up short. Then they insisted I take their bed: newspapers and cardboard covered with a blanket. They slept on the bare floorboards. The next morning, Njoroge bought me a cup of tea at a mud and thatch hut a half-mile away. Afterward, I hitchhiked home, grateful to the old man and his wife, and chastened by the knowledge that they had given me a larger portion of their belongings than I had ever given anyone, stranger or best friend.
When I returned the following weekend to retrieve my motorcycle, I took the old couple an aluminum tea kettle, a strainer, tea, and some sugar. Njoroge wasn’t at home, but his wife was. I have heard people say the Kikuyu are an ungrateful people, that the words thank you don’t even exist in their language. Literally they don’t, but the expression they use instead means it is good. Njoroge’s wife shyly accepted my gift and smiled, and we both said that it was good.
My wife and I were driving home through the South Bronx after a weekend in Manhattan when we ran over an ugly piece of metal and had to stop. I eased the car onto a deserted side street and inspected the damage. Our left rear tire was chewed up and flat.
I had never changed a tire before. As I moved the luggage to get the spare, a car pulled up about twenty feet behind us. In it were two young men dressed in combat jackets. It was a Sunday morning, and no one else was in sight.
Maybe if I looked like I knew what I was doing they would leave us alone. With trembling hands I rummaged around in the trunk for the jack handle but couldn’t find it. I looked behind me. The two men were still in their car, watching.
There was only one thing to do. I walked over to their car and asked for their help. They exchanged glances, then got out without a word. The passenger disappeared among the gutted buildings, and the driver opened his trunk and took out a large jack and an arsenal of tools. He brought them over to our car but just watched as I struggled with the tire. The nuts had rusted onto the bolts and wouldn’t budge. Then he handed me a lever that clamped onto the nuts, and between the two of us we managed to loosen them. He took over and finished the job.
I remarked that he really came prepared. He laughed and replied, “If you live in this neighborhood, you got to be prepared.” We shook hands, and I told him my name was Phillip. He told me his was Cornell. I asked if he would allow me to give him something for his trouble. He demurred at first but finally accepted the ten dollars I put in his hand. As I made a U-turn to head back to the expressway, I noticed a canvas rucksack behind Cornell’s car. Realizing that he was about to drive off without it, I jumped out and scooped it up. It felt heavy and solid, as if it contained a ten-pound bag of flour. I held it up and tapped on his window as he was rolling away, and I’ll never forget his look of horror and amazement. Then relief flooded his face, and he gripped the steering wheel for several seconds before he stopped laughing and opened the window. “Man,” he said, “you don’t know it, but you just saved my life.”
Phillip J. Barton
Elmira, New York
My husband, Mark, was in and out of the hospital for three years with leukemia. During one two-week stay, he shared a small room with a man named Paul, who had lymphoma. The first day, we watched Paul dab cotton balls in lotion and carefully stroke his skin. Then Paul rubbed moisturizer on his face and slicked back his hair with a sweet-smelling oil. When he began buffing his nails, Mark yanked the curtain shut between the two beds.
“It’s not enough that I’m sick, but I’ve got to share a room with some fag,” he whispered. He pointed to the curtain. “We’re keeping this closed.”
I visited every day, and the curtain was always closed. We could hear Paul’s bottles and jars clink together during his cleaning routine, and Mark banged his shaving gear around in response.
But on the tenth day, I walked in to find the curtain open. It was hot in the room, and both men dozed without even sheets to cover them. Mark’s long legs had lost all their muscle tone, and tiny bruises were sprinkled over his skin like grains of purple pepper. Paul’s face was jaundiced, and a bit of blood dripped from his mouth. Wet towels, dirty pajamas, and newspapers were heaped on the floor near Mark’s bed, but Paul’s clothing and toiletries were neatly arranged on the wide shelf. This is the original Odd Couple, I thought. The only thing these men have in common is illness.
When Mark left for chemotherapy, I visited with Paul. “Last night I was throwing up,” he said, “and crying because I wanted to go home. Mark got out of bed and wheeled his IV over here and sat with me until I calmed down.”
Later I told Mark what Paul had said, but Mark brushed it off. “Just returning the favor. A few nights ago I was puking and bawling, and Paul opened the curtain and came over and just sat here.”
At home a month later, Mark got a postcard from Paul. It said he would be hard pressed, if hospitalized again, to find another roommate as kind as Mark.
Mark died, and I assume Paul did too. But their encounter reminds me that a simple act of kindness can somehow make the worst of times endurable.
In 1970 I was an aide to an newly elected congressman from my home state. I had worked hard to help him get elected, and now I was being paid to help him make good on his campaign promises, managing his district office while his top aides ran his reelection campaign. I was proud of the job I did. Congressional offices are an incumbent’s soft spot; even in those days, if you handled a phone call the wrong way you might read about it in the paper the next morning. We didn’t make any mistakes that campaign season, and he was reelected.
I continued to work for him. After a few months, office gossip was that the top aide was planning to leave as soon as the congressman could find a replacement. I had never until then had an ambition beyond marriage and motherhood (both accomplished, the former twice miserably and the latter three times beautifully). But now I wanted that job as badly as I had ever wanted anything.
One afternoon, as we rode the elevator together, making small talk, I told the congressman that if his top aide ever left, I wanted to be considered for his job. He looked straight at me and said, “I’m not intending to consider a woman for that job.”
The following morning I gave two weeks’ notice.
My congressional career ended at five on a chilly, damp Friday. I came close to crying when I said my goodbyes. Just outside the parking lot, in heavy traffic, I got a flat. I carry tools and know how to use them, but one damn lug nut wouldn’t budge, and I’m not a small or weak woman.
I don’t know where he came from, and I can’t remember a thing about him except that he was a head taller than I, which means he was really tall. He said, “Would you like me to get that for you?” I said, “If you could just loosen this nut, I can do the rest.”
He loosened the nut, handed me the wrench, and was gone before I had time to thank him. He gave me reason to believe that it is possible for a man to show respect — not deference, not condescension, not lust, but respect — to a woman.
Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Going downtown on a rainy Saturday morning, riding the bus. It’s late spring and the sun hasn’t shone for months. The city is gray and flat. I’ve got a baby in my lap and a little girl in the seat next to me, and we don’t make a sound. We stare out the window along with everyone else, slumped in our seats. We pass the strip bars with no windows, and then we are on the Morrison Street bridge, looking down on the industrial landscape below, old warehouses and railroad tracks. No one looks at anyone else. Eyes accidentally meet and dart away. Hands are clenched into fists on our laps.
As we pull onto First Street, the driver announces, “I’m stopping at every bus stop downtown, so don’t ring the bell. Let’s not interrupt Vivaldi.”
Every passenger looks up to see the driver’s smiling face looking back at us in his mirror. And then, over the speakers, Vivaldi. The music fills the bus and spills out into the street. We all turn in our seats to look at each other, and every face is laughing.
Friday afternoon, walking up Broadway, I see a young woman in front of Tower Records. She’s tall, a little pudgy, blonde, and blind. There’s a school for blind people in the neighborhood, and you often see folks with red-tipped canes on the street. Sometimes they ask for help at an intersection. I’ve come to believe that if they don’t ask for help, they don’t want it.
This woman stands in the middle of the busy sidewalk, swaying slightly. I wonder if she’s trying to make her way to the subway entrance without getting run over by pedestrians. Or maybe she’s misjudged the distance to the corner and is trying to get her bearings. I’m sure she can take care of herself. I walk by. Then I think maybe she does need help, and she can’t get anybody’s attention because they’re all racing past, like me.
I stop and look back. Then I understand what she’s doing. She’s slowly making her way to a homeless man sitting in a wheelchair in front of the door to Tower Records, navigating by the sound of coins rattling in his cup. She slips some change into the cup, then turns around and disappears into the subway.
New York, New York
I had just blown the whistle on a gangbanger who was defacing the train stop with graffiti in broad daylight and in direct view of those of us waiting on the platform. His blatant assumption that we were all look-the-other-way cowards infuriated me.
The transit authority police — never trust a cop — brought him over to me and asked, “Is this the guy you saw writing on the wall?” I felt set up, placed in a much more precarious position than the offender. I told the truth anyway. My seven-year-old son was with me, and I was setting a moral example. As the young man was taken away, vehemently denying the charge, he shot me a “just you wait” look.
While I stood there praying for the train, a trim and neatly dressed Hispanic man around thirty came up the stairs. With the whole platform to choose from he stood next to us, closely, as if we were together. He didn’t speak, only listened to his Walkman, waiting for the train. A minute later the graffiti artist, who’d apparently been slapped on the wrist and released, ran up the stairs toward me.
“Bitch,” he said loudly. “You mind your own business, bitch. You didn’t see nothing. You understand what I mean? Nothing.” He gave me the same mean look as before, his eyes shifting quizzically to the man who stood coolly beside us.
My mind raced, searching for appropriate words. Finding none, I just stared him down, as my urban-born-and-bred twenty-year-old son had told me to do when confronted.
“Who you looking at, bitch?” he said threateningly.
“Are you talking to me?” I managed.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you.”
“I’m looking at you then. Who else would I be looking at?” I was holding my son’s hand.
The train finally arrived. The gangbanger went to a rear car; my son and I entered through the nearest door. The man who’d silently stood by me on the platform sat across from us. He took off his earphones and spoke in a thick accent.
“I wouldn’t let him do anything to you. I’ve been trained to fight.”
I thanked him profusely, speculating with more than a shudder what might have happened if he hadn’t been there. He just nodded.
When my son and I reached our stop, the man exited too and walked with us down the stairs, our personal bodyguard.
“Thanks again,” I said, embarrassed by my inability to express my gratitude any better. He nodded again and walked away.
My first two years of college were hard. I was lonely and depressed. My old friends and I were going our separate ways. They joined the army, took blue-collar jobs, or attended out-of-town colleges. I stayed at home, living with my parents while I attended school a few miles away. I was shy and made few friends. Sexually awkward, I was uncomfortable around women.
I began to envision a community of sensitive beings who might spot me walking down the street and intuit the enormity of my unhappiness, somehow equating pain with uniqueness. Greenwich Village, I imagined, was this place. The hippies had not yet arrived on the scene, but I had read about the bohemians who lived there. Perhaps a misfit like me might fit in.
One cold, rainy fall day, I sat in the college library committing facts to memory. Sadness filled my chest and belly. I started to cry. No one seemed to notice, or care.
I left the campus, walked five blocks to the subway, and headed for salvation. Greenwich Village. Exaggerating my customary slouch, dabbing teary eyes with a handkerchief for all bohemia to see, I walked across Bleeker Street, waiting for a compassionate stranger to ask what ailed me, for a beatnik woman in a black dress and leotards to introduce me to the world of poetry and cappuccino and serve me as therapist and muse.
Naturally, no one appeared. The rain came down harder. My clothes got drenched. I shivered, started sneezing, and spent the next few days with a low-grade fever.
As soon as l recovered, I dropped out of school. I went back to Greenwich Village, where I passed a few days meandering along the winding streets, looking sad, never once stopping for conversation or compassion.
A week later I took a job with the post office, and I returned to school the following year — where I made a few friends and regained some self-confidence.
Still, I fully expect someday to encounter a kindly stranger who stops to impart a gentle word and some important information, profoundly affecting the rest of my life.
New York, New York
Her name was April and she lived next door. I was twenty years old, an alcoholic, the mother of two small children, and married to a raging alcoholic who’d been arrested for a third DUI at twenty-two. April tried to reach out to me, probably because she heard the screaming late at night and was concerned for the children. She offered me a Bible, a box of cookies, and a smile. After a while I hid behind the curtains when she rang the doorbell. I was too sick and too afraid to accept her kindness. But almost fifty years later, I still remember her name.
I smoothed the coverlet across the woman’s chest and placed her stiffening hands at her sides. She had only a few wisps of gray hair left, and I tucked them neatly under her blue turban. I removed the catheter that drained her bladder and the IV tube from her arm. The oxygen mask that had bothered her so much now hung limply against the wall, and the red indentations it had made on her swollen face were beginning to pale. I tried to remove the signs of her desperate and ugly struggle to remain alive. I wanted to make the woman look as natural and peaceful as possible.
When her family came I didn’t tell them that she vomited up black blood and bile just before she died — that it dripped down her chin with a terrible stench. I did tell them that I held her hand when she drew her last breath, that she did not die alone. And I helped the daughter take off her mother’s wedding ring. When the son hugged me and held me at arm’s length to say, “I want to remember you,” I knew he really meant, “I want to remember everything that touched my mother.”
Little lies of omission are the least I can offer to these grieving families I barely know.
As the clouds burst and I ran to my car, I noticed a young woman pushing an open stroller and hurrying three other children down the sidewalk. A few minutes later, in my warm car, I drove past them. Thinking that in her shoes I’d be wishing I were in mine, I impulsively pulled over to offer a ride. In the streaming rain she paused and asked, “Do I know you?” “No,” I said, “I’m a stranger.” A stranger, but well dressed and a woman, with only good intentions — surely I didn’t appear dangerous. A moment passed. “No,” she said, with a glance at the children. “I don’t take rides from strangers.”
Driving away I felt that I had known the answer before she spoke, the answer of any good mother. And in that moment I felt shame: I should have known better. Had I been kind or insensitive? Does an offer that must be rejected make the world warmer — or simply bruise by the reminder of what the world should be?
Norwich, New York
He had just hit me in the face again because we didn’t have enough change for tobacco and rolling papers. Clutching my baby daughter, I went inside the grocery store. I was struggling to hold back the tears, and I must have been disheveled. My daughter patted my cheek, saying, “It’s OK, Mommy.” I didn’t know what I was going to do. I only knew I couldn’t go back out to the parking lot.
A woman came up to me. “Can I call the women’s shelter for you?” she asked. I think she repeated it several times before I understood what she was saying. I nodded. After a few minutes, she returned. “They said you have to call yourself,” she said. She wrote the number down for me and gave me twenty dollars. It seemed like a fortune. I bought some diapers.
I asked the cashier if I could use the store’s phone, because I was afraid to go outside to use the pay phone. The manager allowed it, and I called the shelter. “Wait there,” a woman’s voice said. “We’re volunteers, so it will take us a while to get to you. But don’t leave. We’ll be there.”
Finally they arrived. Afraid to go out, I described him and asked if he was still in the parking lot. They assured me that he wasn’t. At the shelter they said, “Think hard. Isn’t there someone you could stay with? Our funds are very limited.” I thought of a woman I knew, a single parent who supplemented her welfare check by providing child care. I called her, explaining that I needed a place to stay until I could decide what to do. She agreed. When I left several weeks later to stay with a friend I hadn’t seen in years, she gave me sixty dollars, almost half her check.
I never went back to him. My daughter and I owe much to the kindness of strangers.
Halfway through the three-week blockade of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 1981, several of us took a break and drove into town for pizza. I had a miserable cold and was just glad to get indoors. After dinner, John, a local who had joined us back at camp (the rest of us were from upstate), said he knew a place in town where one or two of us could crash. At this point, the thought of a warm floor to sleep on was a vision of heaven.
John said the place we were going wasn’t far, but it took us more than an hour to get there. And though he said it was his girlfriend’s apartment, it turned out to be only the place she was crashing at temporarily.
John tapped lightly on the window. It was past 2:00 A.M., and Maria was asleep on the fold-out couch. Groaning, she awoke and came to the door. When she saw that John had companions (untidy, unshaven, in terrific need of showers, and sick), she closed her eyes and groaned a bit more.
But several minutes later, I was curled up in a warm sleeping bag on a smooth rug.
I awoke to faint sounds of laughter and conversation. I groped for my glasses, dragged myself up, and stumbled into the kitchen. It was bright and cheerful and full of tasty smells. Everyone was awake now, and a man and a woman I’d never seen before were making pancakes, eggs, and toast.
I must have been a sight: six-foot-two with long, filthy hair, a ten-day beard, and clothes I hadn’t taken off for more than a week.
The woman said, “Good morning, Marc,” smiling with matter-of-fact pleasantness. “Want some eggs?”
“Sure,” I mumbled. “Thanks.”
“There’s pancakes too,” said the man. “And coffee. Have a seat.”
Their names were Gene and Roz, and they were the people who lived here. After we were all quite full of both food and good conversation, one of them suggested that we might want showers and offered fresh towels.
“Got any fresh clothes?” I joked.
Gene looked at me dubiously. “I don’t think I have anything that’ll fit you.”
I laughed. “Just kidding,” I said. “You two guys are being awfully generous to vagabonds who’ve intruded into your home in the middle of the night.”
He shrugged. “If they were building a nuclear power plant in your back yard and we came three hundred miles to try and stop it, you might be generous too.”
I was out to lunch with my sister and her boyfriend in the small town my family has lived in for fifteen years. Our waiter came to take our drink orders. I wasn’t sure at first, but when he put my iced tea in front of me, I gave him a long, close look. That’s when I knew, and I knew he knew, and he knew I knew.
We had met when I was home for a visit from college. He was twenty-eight and gorgeous, a European bartender with a soft aloofness that could melt your heart. We met one night in a bar. He had just gotten off work, and I was out with my family. It seemed like a miracle when he took the empty seat next to me. From that moment on, my vacation was thrilling.
On our third night together, we sat on his bed and talked. He told me about a woman in a nearby city he was going to visit overnight. I saw the warning sign, but he laughed at my fears. “I think you are nice,” he said, still laughing. I did not want to be the nice girl who made him laugh. I felt like crying.
The night he came back from the city was my last night of vacation. I found him in the bar with a woman. He wanted to see me, he said, just as soon as he helped move this woman’s car out of the snow. They were holding hands. “Oh, sure,” I said, not containing my hurt.
To my surprise, he did show up that night. We went to my room. He told me he really liked me. “More and more,” he said. I decided I was in love with him.
I wrote him two letters in which I told him I loved him and I can’t remember how many other embarrassing revelations. I never heard from him. Eventually I stopped dreaming about where and when and how we might meet again. I did not notice when my criteria for “irresistible” no longer included European bartenders with an easy way with women.
But now here I was in a crowded restaurant on Memorial Day weekend, being served by a harried, gray-haired waiter who seemed sadly mundane. He passed our table several times on his way through the dining room and smiled broadly. Then he came back to our table.
“If you need more ketchup, I’ll get some for you,” he said to me. His voice was solicitous. I noticed that his English had improved.
“Thank you,” I said, as if he had just done me a special favor.
“Enjoy your meal,” he said with deep sincerity.
I realized there was nothing else to say. After fifteen years, all my wondering and hoping have added up to this: we are kind strangers.
New York, New York
I decided to pick him up because I knew it wasn’t easy to get a ride if you had a dog. His name was John, and he was wearing old, dirty jeans, a beret, and no shirt. His torso was tan and lean. I was reminded of Christ’s long body hanging from the cross.
We put his dog in the back. A sheep dog, Sailor was big and stern. Though one ear hung down and the other stood up, his eyes were deadly serious. He seemed to be watching over John.
John was exactly the opposite. I tried to make small talk, but nothing he said made any sense. When I asked him about his childhood, where he had grown up, he squinted.
“I remember archery.” He paused. Then he said solemnly, “The Red Cross can’t help me.”
I gathered that he was penniless and homeless and guessed that he had probably been released from a mental institution. He said he’d go as far as I was going.
That night I stopped at a McDonald’s. I asked if I could get him a couple of burgers. Shyly he said no, but he dug into his pocket, pulled out a quarter, and asked if I’d get him an ice-cream cone. I went inside, deciding to buy some extra burgers and then pretend to get too full to eat them.
When I came out, feeling ticklish with covert kindness, I found John and Sailor gorging on burgers.
“From the dumpster,” he said. “Do you want any?”
Late that night he said that soon time machines would be commonplace. He told me he was going to Canada to see a cousin who would give him some plywood. He was going to make a boat from it, and all orphans would be welcome.
I let him out under a bridge on the interstate. Clumsily, I tried to give him money, but he said no. Instead he would sell me his beret. Deal.
Five years later, I saw him again. I was zooming along the interstate with a van full of kids, so I couldn’t stop. Sailor was with him, one ear still up, one down. John had on a new hat, a brightly colored beret embroidered with gold.
Hot Springs, North Carolina
My friend Murphy was broke. He was teaching one night class at college, and it didn’t pay much. One of his students was a long-haired, barefoot-in-winter guy who looked to be in his thirties. He was a thoughtful, hardworking student, but in general his life seemed pretty disorganized. In this respect, he was like Murphy, who owned a big warm coat and not much else besides a great education.
The barefoot student kept Murphy after class one evening with questions. When they walked outside it was snowing, and the guy asked if he could get a ride. As he drove him home, Murphy began talking about a beautiful piece of land he wanted to buy — a steal, but still beyond his means. The guy asked how much it cost, and Murphy told him, a little apologetically. It seemed greedy to want it, considering how little this other guy had. After all, Murphy did have his big coat, a twenty-year-old tan VW bug, a paycheck, and a room to live in. It wasn’t a very nice room, but, hell, he had shoes.
Anyway, this guy who had no shoes was a great listener, and Murphy appreciated it, and he was getting ready to see what kind of shelter or food he could offer when suddenly the guy said, “Well, I can help with the land.” Murphy smiled, but the guy quietly explained that he had a lot of money and hadn’t thought of a good way to use it, except to take courses sometimes and help out people who knew what they wanted.
The guy ended up buying the land in Murphy’s name on a no-interest loan. Murphy kept driving the tan VW bug and wearing the big old coat. He paid off the loan, built a cabin, got married, began raising kids, and got a job he adores.
A few months after my thirtieth birthday, I was in a near-fatal car accident. My view of life was permanently altered. After my body had healed as much as it was going to, I quit my job, sold almost everything I owned, and set out to travel around the world with a man I had known only a few months. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had plane tickets, two small bags stuffed with a change of clothes, band-aids, and a camera.
By the time we got to Europe, after months in forgotten pockets of the world, we were almost broke. But we still had enough money for food, so we didn’t go home. It was fall. We slept in a tent and wrapped ourselves in an old rug we had found. We wore all our clothes to keep warm.
Then we were offered a place to live in the south of France. In return, we were to patch the roof and caulk the windows. It was a wonderful old stone barn that once had housed cows and pigs in one half and a large family in the other. It had been built for the hired hands who used to work this dairy farm for the ancestors of the current owners, the Mannons.
Often, the Mannons invited us over to the “big house,” where we toasted the sinking sun with shots of Madame Mannon’s homemade sherry. Monsieur Mannon told us impassioned tales of his adventures in the navy in Morocco. It didn’t matter that we scarcely understood a word they said, or they us. We spoke in animated charades, and we became friends.
Winter came. At night, we huddled around the barn’s stove to keep warm. Every morning we opened the wooden shutters to let the sun warm the cold stone floor. We considered wrapping ourselves in newspaper beneath our clothes.
At Thanksgiving, we brought the Mannons pumpkin pie and bread made from hazelnuts we’d gathered. We had a lot to be thankful for that year.
Every Monday we passed the Mannons on our way to the weekly market in Ste. Alvere. Each time Madame Mannon scolded us for not wearing coats. We didn’t tell her we couldn’t afford to buy any.
On our last day at the farm, we stopped by the Mannons’ to say goodbye. We must have been a pitiful sight in our mismatched layers of cotton, the winter wind whipping around us. But Madame Mannon didn’t scold us that day. They hugged us and watched us leave.
Our first stop, as it had been every week, was the dumpster just down the road from the farm. We had one last bag of garbage to drop off. There, on top of the dumpster, laid out as if they were on a bedspread, clean and pressed, were two wool coats: one for a woman, a small red ribbon pinned to the lapel, the other a man’s navy peacoat.