Monday, March 3, 2014

Normal Acts of Kindness

A couple of weeks ago I fell while taking a shower and cracked a rib. Then I fell again on the ice and made it worse. Finally, I slipped on the stairs and broke the thing.   During the big snow we had here a couple of weeks ago my neighbor saw me hobbling out to the mailbox on my cane and he helped me.   He is a taciturn man who doesn’t always say much.  I tried to thank him but he was already walking away.  Later on, from where I was lying on the couch, I heard the sound of a mighty machine in front of my house.  I looked out of the window. It was  my neighbor plowing my driveway.  Later on when the weather broke, and I was getting around a little better, I took  neighbor a bottle of wine to say thank you.”  He just smiled that small smile of his, and said, “You didn’t have to do that.“ I said, “I know but I wanted to.”  He replied. “I appreciate it, but this is just what we all do…or should. You’d do the same for me.”  He took the wine. “Let me know if you need a ride somewhere.”  He winked and closed the door.

That little incident got me thinking about all of the kind things people have done for me in the past, and there are many.  Maybe because we are in the thick of one of the worst winters on record in the Midwest, the ones that immediately sprung to mind have to do with the cold.

One of the first really cold winters my family spent in the old Victorian cottage we had in the city the furnace went out.  While I can fix a lot of things, I know virtually nothing about furnaces. I know how to clean them up, and I know that sometimes the ceramic piece of the igniter can get worn and break, which is easy enough to fix. Beyond that I am lost.  With our dead furnace I did all of that but still the thing would not stay lit so I caved, against my will, and called the repairman.  He came in and replaced the thermostat and some part of the electrical control. We got the thing lit and it stayed on for about the time it took for him to drive away.  I called back and another guy came. He said the part must be bad, so he replaced it.  He only charged me his time.  Nice.  Again, the furnace would stay on for a minute or two when it cycled through and then go off again.  At this point it was night and getting very cold in the house.  I called the service people again and they said that they would get someone there as soon as possible, but no definite time when, maybe tomorrow morning.  We had my father-in-law come and take Karen and the, then baby, Ben, to my in-laws’ house.  I stayed behind.

That night I put on about five layers of clothes, took every blanket in the house and went to bed in the highest room where I figured the most heat would be. I turned off the space heaters I had running because I had heard far too many tragic stories about their use.  As I lay there shivering it was hard not to contemplate the people who live outdoors and do this every night under bridges and on Lower Wacker Drive, and wonder how they survive.  It was about the time I was starting to drift off to sleep that there was a loud knock on the front door.  I went downstairs, opened it a crack to find a man on the porch holding a toolbox. He was not in uniform but in khaki work pants, a flannel shirt, and a thick canvass work coat.  He asked, “Are you Mr. Sharpe? I’m Bill from the repair company. “  I must have looked wary because he pulled his work ID from his pocket.  I said, “You don’t look like a repairman.” He smiled. “It’s because I’m not anymore.  I’m the supervisor. I saw your ticket and it was on my way home. Can I come in please?” I didn’t quite know what to do, but I was cold enough that I suddenly became very trusting.  I let him in. “Show me where it is,” he said.

We went down into the basement and as fast as I have seen anything he had the thing apart and was shining flashlights into everything, testing things with a volt meter and cleaning things with a blower.  When he was done with that, he stood up and screwed up his face.  I asked, “What do you think it is? Do you think I’m going to have to get a new one? The last owners said it was only a few years old when we bought the place.” He put his hand on his chin. “I’m not sure. It all looks right.”  I asked him if he wanted a coffee, and he said, “Yes, that would be nice.” I went and got him a cup. When I returned, he was still standing there, staring at the defunct furnace.  He took his coffee, had a sip, and kept staring. All of a sudden he asked, “What kind of chimney you got here?”  I said, “It’s brick, old brick. The house is 120 years old.”  He started nodding his head. “Hmmm.”  He handed me the coffee cup went into the furnace found where the chimney vent was, ran his arm up it and about five large bricks fell out on the floor. He looked at me with a smile. “Well, there’s your problem. If the vent is clogged then the CO sensor trips off and won’t let the furnace light.”  Sure enough he was right.  After we got it started, he sat with me for about a half an hour to make sure it stayed on.  As he was packing up his tools and getting ready to go I asked, “What is this going to run me?”  He smiled and said, “Nothing.  Our mistake.  I’ll make sure you get your money back on the other stuff.”  I stammered, “What about your time.”  He just said, “No. It was on the way home. Cost me nothing to stop.”

Another time we were driving down to Louisiana for Christmas and got caught in a horrible ice storm.  Cars were in ditches, trees were across the highway. We had to pull off the road and try to find a place to stay the night.  The first ramp we could get to was just outside of Hope, Arkansas. There were two motels right there.  At the first one the man at the desk told us it would be over $200 to spend the night even though there was no power or heat. We immediately went to the next motel.  I was having horrible visions of having to spend the night in the car as we approached the registration desk.  The man there said, “I have no power or heat, but you are free to spend the night, no charge. We’re heating up all the food we got in the kitchen on portable gas and you’re free to help yourself.” I wanted to cry. “Thank you, sir,” was all I could get out. He brought us some extra blankets; we got dinner for the kids; talked with some of the other refugees from the storm, and then went to the room he gave us. That night we all slept in the same bed and I read Harry Potter out loud in the beam of a flashlight.  When it died, we went to sleep feeling actually pretty warm.  The next morning the manager gave us donuts and sent us on our way with instructions on where best to go find gas.  He would accept nothing from us more than our thanks. He said, “That’s just how we do things around here.”

I hear a lot of times people say, “Let’s all do a random act of kindness today.” While I think it is a good notion but I have a bit of an issue with this idea.  I think about all of the people who have picked me up when I have fallen down and just kept moving like they do it every day, because they probably do; the people who without looking up or missing a beat hold building and elevator doors for others as if it were routine because it is for them, and the people who always instinctively say, “Can I help you with something?”  I think about all of the people who do these things without any expectation of any sort of reward. It is just who they are and how they do things. It is how they are wired. No offense against the people who do random acts of kindness, but why should they be random?  Why shouldn’t kindness be the accepted norm; not the moment to be heralded but the general order of things? Maybe I’m a Pollyanna in believing there could be an overall kind society, and not one that’s just random.  Well, that’s how I think and it doesn’t cost a thing to act in that belief all of the time.  The way I see it is the alternatives to kindness and caring is indifference and cruelty, and those concepts really do have their costs. 

As my grandmother used to say, “Kindness never killed a cat.”