The kindness of strangers

Imagine Ruthie dropping her credit card and struggling to get up.  Now imagine that Ruthie has two bad knees such that she can’t kneel the way she is in the picture, much less crawl around on hands and knees.  Still she’s inside her house.

Now imagine me at the bus stop at the corner of Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 21st Street in Philadelphia this past Sunday in the cold rain of the first wave of the recent winter storm that hit the Northeast.  I had just pulled out my iPhone to check why the #48 bus was late, only to learn that the one I was waiting for had been cancelled.  As I put the phone back in my jacket pocket, I realized that I didn’t feel my bus pass.  There it was!.  On the sidewalk where it had fallen when I pulled the phone out.

With a herniated disk, no way could I bend over from a standing position to pick up a thin plastic card on the sidewalk.  My left knee won’t bend very far after the replacement a few years ago.  My right knee has just been x-rayed and determined to have “terminal osteoarthritis.”  So squatting wasn’t going to work, nor getting down to kneel like Ruthie.  Fortunately I was standing near a lamp post.  I was able to slide down to the “take a knee” position and lean on the post to avoid falling over from that position.  I picked up the bus pass and the glove that had fallen in the process of getting down.

Now what?  I tried various ways of pushing on or holding the post to lever my way back up.  Eventually I would have remembered what I had done in a similar situation, inside, dry, on a rug.  That is to use my bent left leg like the piece of sturdy furniture that Ruthie was looking for and push myself off of it.  Hurts, but it works.  However, I was cold, flustered, and frustrated by my failure to get up using the pole.

This struggle went on for about five minutes on a busy public thoroughfare in Center City, Philadelphia. Cars were going by, but no police or pedestrians whom I could ask for help.  Then two cars pulled into the bus stop.  The lady in the passenger seat of the first car rolled down her window and asked if I needed help.  I said yes.  She gave her dog to her male companion to hold and got out.  She knew what she was doing because she leaned over towards me and told me to put my arm around her shoulders.  I did that.  She stood upright and I came up with her.

I was so moved by her kindness and by getting out of my predicament that I blurted out “God bless you!”  Without saying anything she smiled and got back in her car.  They drove off.

I had thought the second car was with the first.  After they left, however, the second car pulled forward.  The driver rolled down the passenger-side window and asked if I was ok now.  I said I was.  He said that he had seen me struggling to get up, gone around the block to come back to help me, but “they beat me to it.”  I thanked him profusely for his concern.  He drove off.

I was taking the bus to meet my high school friend for our usual post-Thanksgiving get-together when he comes up from Atlanta for his family gathering.  I would be late if I waited for the next scheduled #48 bus, assuming that came on time or at all.  So I tried to summon a Lyft ride, but with the rain drops on the touch screen I could not enter the info needed to get a ride.  I had to walk back a block to the East Tower in Park Towne Place to find a dry spot under a roof.

Although I felt helpless when down on the sidewalk, I was too anxious about not being late for my meeting to get upset about what happened.  I also felt and still feel a warm glow in my heart that there are people in this world who will still go out of their way to help a stranger.

In previous posts I retold an incident in Vassily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad.  A soldier on his way to the front shares his bread with a woman fleeing the German advance on the city, even after they had exchanged insults.  In the sequel to this novel, one of Grossman’s characters describes such behavior as “senseless kindness.”  People are kind to each other just because we’re kind to each other.  Just being kind does more to help people than trying to impose some idea or ideal of the Good on the world.  This past Sunday I experienced the power and the blessings of senseless kindness.




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