Gift of kindness among life’s sweetest surprises

On a recent Sunday night, I was driving home from a concert in Philadelphia when, stopped at a red light, I noticed peripherally the wild hand gesticulations of the driver in the car next to me.

Glancing over, I saw that these animated gestures were being directed my way. But what exactly he was trying to communicate was beyond my guess. In truth, he seemed to be engaging in some strange ritual, throwing his hands up and down, as if in offering or praise, or perhaps as part of some exuberant ethnic dance. But as his eyes locked on mine, I knew this was some kind of attempt to get my attention. And I admit that being alone in my car in the city at almost 11 o’clock at night — albeit thronged by other drivers on a busy stretch of Chestnut Street — I began to feel a slight paranoia. After making sure that my headlights were on, that I hadn’t caught any of my clothing in the door (a woman once stopped me after her incessant honking failed to get me to realize that the bottom of my skirt was billowing from the driver’s side door) and that, as far as I could tell, I wasn’t leaving behind noxious plumes of smoke, I dismissed him as a kook and sped up when the light changed green.

But he stayed beside me, until I eventually changed lanes, flashing back to yet another memory of a man who had actually driven alongside me for several miles on Route 309 once, brandishing his cell phone in the most ludicrous attempt to get my phone number simply because I had smiled at him when our eyes happened to meet while waiting at the tollbooth.

I couldn’t believe it when I hit the next red light and found myself once again next to Mr. Bizarro, still flapping his hands, eyes pinned on me, and this time rolling down his window.

I don’t know what it was that ultimately convinced me to do the same, curiosity no doubt at his persistence and the faint, though somewhat grudging awareness that that there was something almost jovial about his features.

“Wake up!” he admonished when we were as face-to-face as we were going to get. “I’ve been trying to tell you to wake up. You looked like you were falling asleep back there.”

I did? I was tired and it had been an exhausting weekend packed with activity, but still, I believed myself alert enough to safely drive home — and I’d certainly been alert enough to notice that some nut was flailing about beside me. Yet when he mimicked the comatose face I’d apparently been making at the wheel, I had to laugh and concede that his concern may have been warranted after all.

“You need to do something. Turn your music up. Drive with your windows down — something,” he continued to advise me, and there it was, that jovial spark flashing in his smile.

I smiled back — and uttered my sincere thanks, feeling slightly foolish for all my erroneous assumptions and paranoid judgments.

Just before the light changed, he said, “Get home safe and have a blessed night.”

I wished him the same and then he drove off in another direction, while I continued on my way, musing that the whole unanticipated exchange had actually made my night. It wasn’t the peculiarity of it or even its funniness. It was simply this: that a stranger had cared enough to seek out my well-being.

That his act of kindness was a small one made it no less significant, for I have noticed that there is an incredibly enlivening quality to exactly such moments. In the tedium and banality of our days, such pockets of benevolence can usher in bursts of joy or affirmation; they can be reminders of grace, of possibility and of the threads that bind us more closely than we sometimes care to admit. And they also have a way of drawing us out from preoccupation and self-absorption — and occasionally even those black or dismal moods — into our best or better selves.

Years ago, after weeks of saying “Thank you” and “Have a good night” to a sullen, gruff-looking, middle-aged gas station attendant whose only response to my dogged politeness was to turn his back and walk away, I couldn’t have been more surprised when he leaned against my car during one of my weekly stops and asked, “So how are you doing tonight?” Minutes later, that still didn’t lead to a “You’re welcome” or “You, too” when I drove away with my usual goodbye but I remember beaming long after I left as if I’d just scored a huge victory in my quirky and obstinate quest to crack his implacable churlishness.

These brief, stumbling encounters continued for some time until one night after a longer exchange than usual — meaning that I talked more about the weather that day while he listened and maybe nodded his head — I was emboldened to ask him his name.

When he offered it, I celebrated yet another fissure in his characteristic reserve. In time, Chaz came to talk to me about his grandkids, his motorcycle, the long rides he would take and, yes, also the weather. He was never verbose or even overtly amiable but there was nonetheless a sincerity to his efforts that I appreciated. That he always came over to my car, even when other attendants were available, told me that on some level, he, too, was grateful for those exchanges.

I didn’t intentionally set out to make him my kindness experiment but the hesitant, limited revelation of the man behind the mask reinforced, for me, one of the simplest powers for good at our disposal — and how too often, whether it is with our co-workers, the individuals who serve us in our daily lives and, yes, especially strangers, we underestimate how a single, simple act of caring can transform an ordinary moment, and sometimes even a life.

Life in LaLa Land published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County