November 24, 2003

The Kindness of Strangers

Blanche and I would never have been friends. We have nothing in common. In her “Streetcar Named Desire” world, she tells the attendant that she has “always relied upon the kindness of strangers”.

Well, I haven’t. "Pay It Foward" just seemed like a nice ideal, nothing that could survive popular application. I have never understood the motivation of people, and in my bruised and distrusting way I have always assumed (with the natural aggression of a hardcore pessimist) that anything that needs to be done must be done alone. In that way, I have made sure that no one around me is exposed to any slight vulnerability that I may have, no secrets that I harbor about my fears, secrets, dreams and hopes.

It’s a lonely existence, but I get by ok.

I don’t accept help from people, in general. I don’t ask for it, either. But there is one occasion that stands out in my mind as an example that, although I want to delude myself and think the worst about people, there is goodness out there that someday I am going to have to accept.

When I left my husband, I had only my 1980 VW rabbit convertible, my clothes, and my two cats. Everything else was gone. I drove away from where I was living in North Carolina to Dallas, which was a town that I knew and figured I could find work in. I felt enormous pressure to get away, to get there, to leave that part of my life behind. I thought that my husband might come after me (and he did, shortly after, and not in a “knight in shining armor” kind of way. More like a “The Shining” kind of way). So it was that I drove like a demon possessed to try to get to my new life, to lead my life as quickly as possible.

I had finally made my way into the Eastern border of Texas, and still had several hours to go. I was dressed in shorts and a tank top, and had only $100 with me. My lunch was a packet of Twizzlers and a Diet Coke. I stopped at a small town a little ways into Texas, and got gas.

As I got out of the car, I noticed that the warm weather they had in Arkansas was not present in Texas. The wind was cold, almost bitter, and while the gas was pumping I got back into my car and slid on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. When the gas was done, I went into the station and paid for the gas. I got back out to the car.

And it wouldn’t start.
I tried and tried and tried. But it wouldn’t turn over at all.

I went into the gas station, and the attendant, a kind woman with big, bouncy dirty blond curls and a cigarette smoker’s voice, told me her brother-in-law owned the garage in town, and could come get the car. He showed up in a few minutes with a tow truck, and I piled into his truck with him while he towed my little car.

I sat inside the service station with a Styrofoam cup of lousy coffee and a heavy heart. He came back in shortly, and sat down. His shirt said “Billy” on the pocket, and he had a very dirty Dallas Cowboys cap on.

“Well, ma’am, I have to say that it’s your alternator that’s the problem. We have a spare alternator we can use on your car, but they tend to range into about four hundred dollars.”

I don’t know much about cars, but I do know what an alternator is, and I know that they cost big money.

“Are you sure?” I asked hoarsely. “Are you sure that’s the problem?”

He smiled, and stood. “I’ll go check again, and then we can see what options we have.”

He left, and I felt the tears come down. This was all so fucking impossible. I had finally gotten the gumption to end my marriage, to escape into my new life, to become what I thought would be a better person, and look what happened. It was a sign, I thought. A never-ending round of life.

A long time went by, and finally Billy came back in and sat down on his desk, just across from me.

“I’m real sorry, ma’am, but it was indeed the alternator. We went ahead and replaced it, since your car was not going to start without a new one.”

I started crying again. I dug into my jeans pocket and removed the crumpled bills I had, a grand total of $87. I showed it to him.

“I’m so sorry, but this is all I have. You have to understand, I just left my husband. He took all of our things and all of our money. I am driving to Dallas to get away from him, I have to get away from him or he’s going to wind up beating the life out of me.”

The tears kept coming down, and I took the cuff of my UTA sweatshirt to remove them angrily. I kept the money on my hand, exposed, my Scarlet Letter. I felt so stupid, crying like this. Like Billy gave a shit. I was a fucking hysterical woman in his office, a typical damsel in distress, and it made me so angry.

He got off his desk and knelt beside me.

“Ma’am?” he asked, removing his cap. I noticed the crease-mark his hat had left on his brown hair. “Are you a Christian?”

Oh no. Now he was really going to lecture me.

“No, sir.” I replied softly. “I’m not.”

He smiled. “Well, I am.” He replied. He took my elbow and eased me out of the chair. With his other hand, he folded my fingers over my $87. He walked me towards the door, and as I got there, he took my hand, turned it over, and placed my car key in my palm.

I looked up at him, not understanding.

“What…?” I asked, tears still coming.

He smiled. “Take care, ma’am. And God be with you. You drive safely now.” He replied, and turned around and walked whistling into the garage.

And I stood there and looked up at the sky. He had just fixed my car for free. At no small expense, either.

And so it was that I drove to Dallas, in a working car, and with $87 in my pocket. I don’t remember the name of the town now, I only remember the cold chill and the kindness of the garage. And the reason that it came back to me recently was I saw, with my posts last week, the kindness that strangers from all corners of the bits and bytes world have. Strangers that come out and reveal that they are friends, and believe in you.

And it’s then that I realize I can’t live without kindness after all.

Blanche, can I buy you a drink?


PS-I am off to London and Amsterdam, so my blogging may be hit and miss for four days, but I will be around. I am visiting two good friends (and happily get to spend some quality drinking time with Dear Mate, who is there this week) in a "cheer Helen up" campaign.

Oh, and while in London, I aim to have my friend take a picture of me-I plan on joining the "Blogging Nekkid" campaign. Stay tuned for posted pics...

Posted by Everydaystranger at November 24, 2003 08:32 AM | TrackBack

It's encouraging how kindness finds even those that don't believe, and just when they are most in need of being convinced that it exists.

This was a great story, and thanks for sharing it. Stories like this are why Best of Me is worth taking the time to explore new places.

Posted by: ntexas99 at May 31, 2004 10:59 PM

I'll thank Denny for hosting the Bestofme Symphony, so I had a chance to read this and discover your blog. The humanity (yours and the mechanic's) just shines.

Posted by: Beth W. at May 31, 2004 06:42 PM

Take care, Helen! Oh, and can't wait to see your picture for Bloggin' Nekkid!

Posted by: Beth at November 28, 2003 04:11 PM


Marilyn Monroe was a 14, wasn't she (or at least a 12 anyway)?

Posted by: Clancy at November 26, 2003 02:11 PM

Whenever I try to rely on others' kindness, I'm vividly reminded that men prefer women with little asses. Size 14 doesn't get me much.

Sorry, feeling a bit bitchy today. Have lovely times in Amsterdam and London. Don't do anything I wouldn't do...which leaves you *loads* of room, darling.

Posted by: Kaetchen at November 26, 2003 01:52 AM

You can't *rely* on the kindness of strangers, but every once in a while, when you really really need, it, you find it's there. I'm glad you did.

Have tooo much fun in Amsterdam and London!

Posted by: jean at November 25, 2003 10:57 PM

Have some magic brownies for me :)

Posted by: Drew at November 25, 2003 07:01 PM

Great story, that.
Enjoy London and Amsterdam - two great cities. Obviously, I'm biased towards London...
I like it here, I think I shall return.

Posted by: kelvingreen at November 25, 2003 06:12 PM

I like that saying from the Italian Job that Donald Southerland says. "I trust every man, its the devil inside them I don't." I think that rings true. Everyone is inherently good, but some have a spiteful nature. Anyway, if you remeber that persons kindness, If I were you I would try to find them again, send them a christmas card.

Posted by: pylorns at November 25, 2003 05:39 PM

Could you provide a Kleenex warning next time, maybe? I'm glad they were handy here on my desk. You're right - sometimes we need the help of others. People surprise you with their kindness, don't they?

Posted by: Christine at November 25, 2003 05:34 PM

funny how sometimes when you most need it, something beautiful happens.

have a great time in london and amsterdam! how fun! xoxo

Posted by: kat at November 25, 2003 04:00 PM

Just because one is an optimist, doesn't mean that the world will be all sunshine and roses.

Likewise, just because one is a pessimist, doesn't mean that one will always get shot down.

That is a beautiful story.

Got me all choked up, dammit.

Posted by: Joey at November 25, 2003 02:41 PM

That was beautiful.

Posted by: Gudy at November 25, 2003 02:28 PM

great story.

Posted by: jim at November 25, 2003 01:56 PM

How beautiful. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

I'm from North Carolina. The mountains. The old, backwards Appalacian Mountains...lock your doors at night, listen to the spirits blow through the woods at night, witches brew bubbling in a cauldron at the Devil's Stomping Ground, Deliverance every Saturday night at the Hardee's on Main Street.

Yeah, it's The Shining 24-7 there.

Posted by: Rob at November 25, 2003 01:47 PM

I live in East Texas...I sell auto parts for a living. I would like to think that the kind stranger in this story is one of my customers. Maybe in your experience before, people didn't help other people this way....but in my experience, there are still good, decent human beings....I am glad that you encountered one in our part of the country......

Posted by: MiMo at November 25, 2003 01:38 PM

That was a fantastic story Helen! Thankyou for telling us. And even if you ever did stop needing people totally, there are always people who might need you, some stranger that you will be there for one day just at the right moment....what goes around etc :)

Posted by: nisi at November 25, 2003 11:14 AM

There's good in everybody, it's just that usually people are too busy with their own lives to let it out. Let's hope Billy bought a lottery ticket that came in to reward him for his kindness.

Enjoy your holiday.

Posted by: Simon at November 25, 2003 09:53 AM
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