Saturday, 31 August 2013

The kindness of strangers

Friends are like our loved ones: we count on them and they make life worth living.

But a smile and a brief exchange of words with a stranger are the little dash that give our existence spice. Conversations on trains, on street corners, in shops can turn an aggravating moment into a delightful one. I look back with undiminished gratitude on the man who, when I knocked on his door and admitted I didn’t know where I lived, in the neighbourhood I’d just moved into, threw a raincoat over his pyjamas – he’d been ready for bed – and drove me home.

Strangers, I’m told, are just friends you haven’t yet made. Though, sadly, I’ve come across a few strangers who turned out to be vile excrescences it would have been a relief never to meet, in general I’ve found that sentiment true.

Blanche du Bois, according to Tennessee Williams,
always depended on the kindness of strangers
Not that it worked out that well for her
When I travel into my office, I tend to stop just before I get there to pick up a reasonably drinkable coffee from the local filling station (there’s nothing wrong with the office coffee, if you’re happy to drink something that could also be used to mortar bricks). The last time I did that, I went off to collect my drink, only to find the barista handing over a cup to the man behind me.

‘A large latte?’ he said as he held it out.

‘I haven’t actually ordered one yet,’ he replied, looking at me apologetically, concerned at being served ahead of me though he was behind me in the queue.

‘No, but I saw you coming across the forecourt,’ replied the barista and, turning to me, added by way of explanation, ‘he’s in most days.’

Clearly, I haven’t become familiar enough to the staff to have them prepare my order before I can place it. On the other hand, as I left the shop, the woman who frequently serves me did wish me a good day with a warm smile, so it seems I
ve at least reached the bottom rung of the ladder inhabited by the regulars.

That kind of cordial contact with people whose name you don’t even know is part of the necessary lubricant of everyday life.

It’s even better with people you don’t know at all. I worked from home yesterday and in the afternoon answered a knock from a man who was selling door to door.

‘I’m not going to spin you a story about working for a charity, because I’m not. But I am official,’ and he held out a police certified document to prove it.

He had lots of things, none of which I wanted to buy, and at prices that made me even less inclined to buy them.

‘Just take a look at how much the same things cost in a shop!’ he exclaimed at one point.

‘Trouble is, shop prices, even discounted shop prices, are a lot too much for something I don’t need.’

In the end, though, I got a little change out: I felt his openness and honesty meant he deserved something. But he didn’t want to take my charity.

‘Have some dusters,’ he said, thrusting them into my hand, even though the amount I’d given him was little over half the price. 

Funnily enough, that was the most successful piece of haggling I’d ever done, getting a discount of over 50%. Next time I must try it for an article I actually want.

So we parted company, he the proud possessor of a lot less money than he’d have liked me to pay him, I of some objects which I neither needed nor desired. But he summed up the experience neatly in his last words.

‘A lot better than a slammed door, isn’t it?’

Yes. A lot better. Another warming moment of kindness between strangers.

And despite my wife’s misgivings, I doubt it will lead to the house being burgled.


Mark Reynolds said...

Oddly, while I obviously treasure the friends I've made in the places I've lived, it really is the interactions I've had with strangers that determined how much it felt like home: when we left Strasbourg, it felt like half the city said farewell, from the market vendors, to the café waiters, to the oboist who lived upstairs.

David Beeson said...

It gives a true sense of belonging, doesn't it? But my sense is that you've had a similar welcome to Chicago, haven't you?