Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kindness of Strangers

Strangers on Broadway

Have you ever helped out a stranger? Probably you have. Sometimes perhaps kindness was repaid in kind; other times someone probably took advantage of you. I can think of instances of both in my life. Times when I was grateful beyond words that I had helped someone and times when I was spitting mad that the poor soul I had rescued was conning me.
The latter is probably more of an urban phenomenon. In my neighborhood it works like this. A poor soul comes to your door. His or her car has broken down while they were visiting a sick relative (usually a parent). They have no money to pay for gas/train or bus fare/ a phone call. Being the Good Samaritan that you are, you give them a bit extra just in case. Later you realize you’ve been had. The woman who came to my door sobbed her heart out about her mother who had just died in the nearby hospital of Sickle Cell Disease. I was just suspicious enough to ask her what floor her mother had been on. (I trained in that hospital). I was just gullible enough to give her $20 bucks. Later I checked. There was no such ward at the hospital. My best guess is the tears were so realistic because the woman was in dire need, but for her next drug hit. Drug withdrawal mimics severe depression quite effectively. She didn’t have to work too hard to dredge up the tears. Both my husband and my mother have also fallen for similar stories. Now we don’t give anyone money.
Another local scam is to bring a gas can to a busy intersection and claim to have run out of gas. It could be legitimate you think to yourself. Except when too many people pull the same stunt at the same corner. That strains even my credulity.
I can think of two notable occasions when I was kind to a stranger and was paid back more than in kind. Once I was en route to Paris and had just debarked from a long flight. I was in Brussels and needed to transfer to the train. This was in my starving student days and I was pretty cash poor. I was also pretty credit poor.
I saw a young man in line ahead of me at the exchange bureau. He was trying to get some cash to pay for his train ticket. There was some hitch and he was left empty handed. I recognized the fellow from my flight and decided to ask what the problem was. He explained that he was a French student who had been studying in the U.S. and was returning home to Paris. He had somehow run out of money and could not get home. Impulsively I loaned him train fare. He promised his parents would repay me. I calculated that maybe I would not be repaid but that I preferred the generous me to the suspicious me and went ahead anyway.
When we arrived in Paris his parents not only repaid me but kind of adopted me. I had gone to Paris a few days before my boarding house was available on the grounds that my French boyfriend would help me find a place to stay. Said boyfriend promptly dumped me and I would have been in a bit of a spot but for my generous moment which earned me some lovely French friends, a tour guide to Paris and free lodgings for nearly two weeks. All for a loan of $20.
I made another French friend, an elderly woman, simply because I gave her my seat on the bus. She thanked me kindly, asked me where I was from, announced to me “I love Americans!” and invited me to dinner sometime. What an experience in a city known for its hostility to Americans. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I am fluent in French.
There are stranger kinds of “kindness.” For example, the person who stole my suitcase but taped my address to my house keys and dropped them in a mail box. Amazingly, the post office delivered them without any postage! Why would a thief return the keys? Guilt? As an odd repayment for the contents of the luggage? Couldn’t they have returned my son’s baby blankets too?
For a scientific analysis of the Kindness of Strangers click here. It is an interesting study.


paris parfait said...

What interesting stories! I love the one of you helping out the Parisian boy and being repaid many times over with kindness.

Andrée said...

fascinating article. But I question the rationalization of the behavior of people in NYC. my personal feeling (even after having been scammed in Hartford) is that even if I was naive, I was generous. Nobody can fault me for that. So I continue to give.

self taught artist said...

what a wonderful story to read this morning. thanks for sharing it...unbelievable!

sarala said...

Thanks all.

Sue said...

Hi... I just surfed in and enjoyed your blog quite a bit. I often stress about the kindness kind of thing. I end up feeling like I've done the wrong thing, no matter which choice I make....