The kindness of strangers


It’s Friday, and earlier I had the brilliant idea of getting a half dozen donuts from the wonderful donut place on South Pearl Street in downtown Albany, just a few blocks from my office, and having a delightful night of donut-eating with my daughters. When I got there, I asked the guy behind the counter if he could choose the best donuts there were. Do you want the most popular ones? he asked. Or my favorites? Your favorites! I said immediately, because this is the trick to getting some of the best food out there, at least according to this book. I also figured that if a guy who works in a donut store still has favorites, those must be the best ones.

The guy looked thoughtfully at the donuts and started putting a couple in a bag (Do you like lemon? he asked. YES! I said), but then suddenly I put my hands into both of my coat pockets and realized I was missing something quite important for this exchange: my wallet. Oh no! I said. I don’t have my wallet! The guy stood poised with a donut just above the half-filled bag, Oh, he said, do you want me to put these aside while you go back and— (sadly, the problem was that my wallet was not at work, but at home). No, it’s okay, I— But just then a man behind me said, Oh, I’ll get them for her.

I turned around, stunned. There was just this guy, maybe 30ish, opening up his wallet. The guy was instantly ready to help me out of a crisis, if being unable to buy a luxurious bag of donuts could be considered a crisis. I was standing there in my big puffy coat (whether I looked like someone who needed a half dozen donuts is beside the point), and the fact is, the guy was simply offering to help out. I was so delighted by his offer that I was actually tempted to take him up on it, just for the sheer pleasure of having a kind stranger buy me donuts, but I declined. I thanked him very much, apologized to the guy behind the counter, and headed back to work (my girls: if you’re reading this, I promise to try again next week!).

It occurred to me then, and not for the first time, that somehow the kindness of strangers can be even more touching than kindness from someone you know. A stranger has no reason to be kind to you other than because he or she thinks it’s the right thing to do. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ireland, where if you pause on a street  corner (or a seemingly empty country road) for one second looking a tiny bit confused, someone will pop out of nowhere, ask you where you want to go, and then escort you until you have reached your destination no matter how far away it is (this was true as of 1992, when I was last there, but I’d like to think it’s still true) (if it’s not, please don’t tell me).

As I headed back to work, I started thinking about something that happened last year when I was standing on line in the supermarket, probably flipping through some stupid celebrity magazine (Stars! They’re just like us!), and eventually noticed that the line had pretty much stopped moving. There was an elderly woman two people ahead of me who was having trouble with her debit card. It kept getting rejected and she kept trying it, all the while looking lost and confused, while saying, It just worked yesterday.

You could see that the young cashier didn’t quite know what to do. I noticed that the elderly woman was buying just a few cans of cat food and a container of cranberry juice (it is impossible not to think of this heartbreaking song, by the way). Just then (really it all happened very quickly) the man in front of me said, Let me take care of that. Oh, I— the elderly woman began, and the man said, Please let me help, and handed the cashier a $5 bill. The woman thanked him, still seeming confused, and took her bag and left, and the line continued on. I waited until I got to my car before I burst into tears.

And now here I was, walking up the crazily steep sidewalks of downtown Albany in the blustery cold, with no wallet and no donuts to take home. I still felt like the luckiest person.


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