Simple Life: The Kindness of Strangers

…and the strangeness of some kinds of people.
by Jim Dodson | illustration of Gerry O’Neill

The other afternoon I was making a pleasant run to the garden center during early rush hour when I saw something I’ve never seen on a busy North Carolina street.  

While waiting for the light to change at one of the busiest intersections in the city, a woman next to me in an SUV began edging out into the heavy stream of traffic crossing in front of us. Was she unaware of her dangerous drift into moving traffic? She was, after all, visibly chatting on her phone and apparently oblivious to the blaring horns. Within moments, however, traffic in both directions had halted. One man was actually yelling at her out his window, shaking a fist. 

But on she merrily went, indifferent to the automotive mayhem left in her wake, the first red light I’ve ever seen run in slow motion. 

For an instant, I wondered if I might have somehow been teleported to Italy or France, where motorists seem to regard traffic lights and road signs as simple nuisances. 

Having motored across all of Britain and most of France, Italy and Greece, I long ago concluded that driving there is both a blood sport and national pastime. When in Italy, my operational motto is: drive like the teenage Romeo with the pretty girl on the back of his Vespa who just cut you off in the roundabout with a rude gesture insulting your heritage. It’s all part of the cultural exchange.

But here in America, most of us grew up respecting traffic laws because we were force-fed driver’s education in our early teen years, programs designed to make us thoughtful citizens of the public roadways. Yet, in cities across America, officials report that traffic accidents and automobile fatalities are approaching record levels. Some blame the pandemic that has had the world so bottled up and locked down, presumably entitling folks behind the wheel to make up for lost time by driving like there’s no tomorrow — or at least no traffic laws. 

In my town and possibly yours, is it my imagination or do more folks than ever seem to be blithely running stop signs, ignoring speed limits, and driving like Mad Max on a Tuscan holiday? Running a red light in slow motion may be the least of our problems. 

The armchair sociologist in me naturally wonders if America’s deteriorating driving habits and growing automotive brinkmanship might simply be a symptom of the times, part of a general decline of public civility and respect for others. 

Whatever is fueling the road rage and social mayhem, the remedy is profound, timeless, and maddeningly elusive. But I saw the fix written on a sign my neighbor planted in her yard the other day. Spread Happiness, it said.

I found myself thinking about my old man, an ad man with a poet’s heart who believed kindness is the greatest of human virtues, a sign of a truly civilized mind. My nickname for him was Opti the Mystic because he believed even the smallest acts of kindness — especially to strangers — are seeds from which everything good in life grows. “If you are nothing else in life,” he used to advise my older brother and me, “being kind will take you to wonderful places.”

This came from a fellow who’d been in the middle of a World War and experienced firsthand the worst things human beings can do to each other. He became the kindest man I’ve ever known.

In any case, Opti would have loved how a timely reminder of his message came home to me during another challenging automotive moment.

On a recent Saturday morning, after setting up my wife’s tent at the farmers’ market, I set off in my vintage Buick Roadmaster wagon to a nursery on the edge of town to buy hydrangeas.

On the drive home, however, I blew a front tire and barely made it off the highway into a gas station before the tire went completely flat. I had no spare. To make matters worse, my cell phone had only one percent of its battery left — just enough to leave a quick, desperate voicemail on my wife’s answering service before the dang thing went dead.

I walked into the service shop whispering dark oaths under my breath at such miserable timing, asking the personable young clerk if she could possibly give my phone a brief charge.

Her supervisor emerged from the office. When I explained that I was running errands for my wife when my day suddenly went flat, she gave me a big grin. “Bless your heart, child! Give me that phone!”
I handed it over. She shook her head and laughed. “You’re just like my husband. I can’t let that man go anywhere without him gettin’ into trouble! That’s husbands for you!”

Just like that, my good mood returned. And a few minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver was a big burly guy. He was having a long morning, too. We dropped off my car at the auto service center and he offered to drive me home to get my other car. It was the second act of kindness from a stranger that morning. As we approached my street, I saw my neighbor’s pink Spread Happiness sign for the second time.

“What kind of cake do you like?” I asked him. “Carrot cake,” he replied.

He dropped me off. I drove over to the farmers’ market, picked up a piece of my wife’s amazing carrot cake, phoned the driver, and met him at a parking lot near his next job. “This just makes my day,” he said, diving in.

I then drove back to the service station across town to pick up my phone, which I’d managed to forget in all the unexpected mayhem of the morning. I even offered to pay the ladies for their kindness to a stranger.

They simply laughed. “Oh, honey, that’s why we’re here!” said the manager. “I’m just glad you remembered to come back for your phone, so I didn’t have to chase your butt all over town!”
I drove home to plant my new hydrangeas in a happy state of mind, making a mental note to take my wife’s famous Southern-style caramel cake to these strangers who are now friends.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine