Depending on the Kindness of Strangers—and Friends, Even in These Rough Days

This has been an emotionally excruciating week. Between the barrage of political sniping by—and about—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the outrageous murders of two more African-American men by cops, and the incessant, unavoidable 24-hour news cycle no matter where I turned, I’ve wanted nothing more than to hunker down in my house, shades drawn, hiding under the covers. I have, in fact, done a lot of hiding this week. However, I also have a strong urge to fight back—to find some way to deal with problems and fears, and to face them down.

My main goal this year has been to get out of my comfort zone of being an observer and chronicler of the black experience, and to be in the mix more actively. To that end, I joined the board of a community organization in the part of town where my childhood and family roots are: West Baltimore. I’ve been aided in this quest by a friend and fellow board member who has encouraged and guided me. First, she introduced me to a vibrant yet cozy little café, a gathering space where I’ve been delighted to meet young, mainly black entrepeneurs, writers, artists, and dreamers who have welcomed me into their space—and their conversations—as if we were already old friends. Then, I joined my friend in a Get Out The Vote drive in the community surrounding the café; essentially it was a door-knocking campaign to register voters for the spring primary elections.

The latest project involves the merger of two schools in the community; specifically, conducting a survey of the families of students from the two schools, so that their needs and interests can be better met. This, I thought, would be a good opportunity to use old skills, talking with and listening to small groups of people. So, on Wednesday afternoon, I made my way across town from my current home (Northeast side) to attend a training session at the school.

As I was driving around a curve approaching the school—a curve I traverse at least once a week, my driver-side tires rudely hit the curb! Other than feeling stupid, and briefly considering that I might have rolled over something, I thought little of the mishap and continued driving the half block to my destination, even making a deft 3-point turn into a perfect parking spot. After arriving in the building and discovering that I was the only volunteer to show up for training, I decided to make the best of it, engaging the trainer in some conversation after the session. I then left the building, got in my car, and started the drive back across town. But less than a half block away from the school, I noticed strange flapping sounds coming from my car!

It so happened that there was a guy selling water for a dollar at the stoplight; he confirmed that I had one completely flat tire, and he directed me to a safe place just past the light, around the corner, to park my car on the sidewalk and avoid any more damage. I did as I was instructed and waited while the guy went to check on the safety of his coolers of drinks for sale.

Now, I must confess that this guy was not a complete stranger; I have seen him and his girlfriend hawking drinks at this corner all summer. And my family and I would wonder, as we drove past on numerous occasions, “What are these white people doing at this corner in a black West Baltimore neighborhood?” Let me continue this story, and the answer will be revealed.

While I was standing behind my car, on the pavement by the side of the municipal building, watching nervously as cars whizzed past me, driving dangerously fast—and less than a foot away from my perch—on a 3-lane, one-way street at the height of rush hour, I saw my would-be hero run past me, yelling “Call the police!” But the words didn’t register with me; I was too busy calling a roadside service to come and tow me and my car to a repair shop! [Many pedestrians had passed me by without a word; a few bicyclists and drivers did ask if I was okay.] It wasn’t until about 5-10 minutes later that I noticed the man had joined his girlfriend in the median strip of the busy thoroughfare. I waved to him and, dodging traffic, he came back over, apologizing—one of his coolers had been stolen by two young boys who had walked past me, casually shooting the breeze, before seizing the opportunity to relieve my hero of his unattended cooler!

Feeling sorry that my mishap had contributed to his loss, I pulled out a dollar and asked the man for a drink. When he returned, we started to talk. He introduced himself and then explained that he and his girlfriend were selling drinks (water and 3 kinds of soda) for a dollar, not just to make a little money, but also to help the community! His thinking was that on hot days, people needing a drink didn’t have that many places to buy anything cheaply, except maybe a corner store or a gas station that would charge them too much! He added that they were there on that corner 7 days a week. I know this is true, because I have seen him every time I’ve driven past this corner.

By this time, dusk was falling, and my tow truck was on its way. By the time help arrived, the couple had packed up and gone home. Thirty minutes later, I was home too, having been picked up from my neighborhood repair shop by a neighbor who answered my mother’s request for a ride on my behalf.

 


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