The Kindness of Strangers: NYC Version

I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.

Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.

I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.

It was in the cab.

You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?

I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…

An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”

So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.

Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.

I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place

It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”

“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”

The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.

We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.

The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station.  It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.

As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”

And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands.  He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.

And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.

The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.

It was a good day.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Prayers of a Stranger

I recently realized that my life had become rather narrow, and that music, once the central focus of my existence, had been reduced to passive listening. So, most days, now, I spend some time playing the piano badly.

It doesn’t matter that I can’t play as well as I used to when I was serious, just that I play. It is both engaging and mentally clarifying.

To assist in building this new habit, I am using an app that tactfully nudges and rewards for building habits.  The app also includes a portion I don’t generally use, an opportunity to be part of the app’s “community” of people messaging others who are working on the same things.

These kinds of things are not to my taste. Community means real people that you can see and touch. But last night I casually started glancing through this section, and along with the people needing to study for their exams, or lose weight, I came across a message from someone trying to escape an addiction to Meth. It was more than a cry for help, it was a howl of despair.

We all live in our little bubbles. We write. We sleep. We go to work. We make dinner. We try to be kind. We are people, presumably of good will. But then something happens, and the reality of real people in the anguish of suffering and surviving breaks through without warning.

Modern life expands our boundaries beyond our capacity to cope. We are not meant to bear the suffering of the whole world. We are meant to see what is before us and to act. This is why anonymous technology and non-stop news is so hollow and soul-crushing. It both puts the suffering of the world before us, and makes us powerless to attempt any help.

I doubt my message made any difference.  Disembodied words are no substitute for being present. But maybe there can be some small comfort in being in the prayers of a stranger.

 

Not Judging Books by Their Covers

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I had car trouble yesterday on my way to a signing in Door County. I was tooling along at 70 in the pouring rain, when all of the sudden there was some catastrophic electronic failure. Every dire warning sign flicked on the dashboard. I lost my brakes, I lost my power steering, and the engine began to buck. Fortunately, I was close to an exit in civilization-which for our purposes here means a place with a Mazda dealer only a few miles away–and was able to coast and manhandle the car down a ramp, through a roundabout, and into the parking lot of a minimart.

I hate roundabouts. I mean, I hated them before, but in this case it was lucky I didn’t have to stop. I could just keep coasting.

When I pulled up next to the building out of the way, all the lights in the dashboard went out, and I couldn’t turn off the engine. I had to go inside to figure out where I was so I could tell the tow truck where to come, and normally one doesn’t leave a running car unattended. But what the hell, I thought. It’s not as if anyone could drive it away.

None of this is the point of the story, but I kind of wanted to tell it.

The tow truck showed up in about ten minutes, to my surprise and relief. We were going to be cutting it a little close for me to get to my event, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to explain to the bookstore proprietor–my friend, Peter–that all his planning was going to be for an author-less book signing. I called my husband, who was speeding in my direction to rescue me, and told him he could go back.

Anyway–and now we’re getting to the nub of the thing–the tow truck driver was this young, blond guy with lots of tattoos. He was a kind of classic Wisconsin small town guy, complete with the rural accent: decent, trustworthy, competent, grease on his clothes, dirt under his nails. He hooked up my car, and I climbed into the cab of the truck for the ride to the (mercifully) open car dealer who would loan me a car.

I told him that I was in a bit of a hurry, because there was an event I had to be at. What kind of event? he wanted to know. So I told him I was a writer.

“I love books!” he said. “Harry Potter is my favorite, as you can probably tell by these.” He raised his left arm to indicate his tattoos, which I couldn’t really see, but which must have been representative of this passion. “I listen mostly to audio books, though.” He fumbled in his pocket to get out his I-phone while I hoped that he was looking at the highway. “I’ve listened to…” he looked down at his phone to check the exact figure…”two months and two and a half weeks worth of books this year so far.” He then proceeded to talk about his favorites: after Harry Potter, a series of World War I historical novels by Ken Follet, and some other series in a similar vein. He was knowledgeable about history, and he clearly loved stories of heroism and mysticism. He wanted to know if my books were on audio. I told him not yet, but that we were working on it.

“I read paper books, too,” he said. “But with all the driving around, I do mostly audio.”  I kind of doubt that my books are his kind of thing, but so far all my assumptions were being proved false. “Would you like a copy of my book?” I asked. He was enthusiastic.

We got to the dealer, and I dug out a copy of each of my books and signed them for him. We shook hands.

I love thinking about this tow truck driver, wandering around the country roads of Wisconsin, doing this necessary but unglamorous job, the rhythms of different authorial voices accompanying his travels, moved by the heroic acts of protagonists both real and imagined. Along what path will these values take him? How will these stories affect his life and the lives of others? From the seemingly mundane heroism of helping people with broken cars to some other, more dramatic form? Or is it these small daily rescues that give his path meaning?

Maybe he thinks about these things. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a job to him, not a mission. But the meanings of our lives may be things we never realize until we’re looking back. Or they could be things we’ll never know.

People are always more interesting than you think.