Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The kindness of strangers

As a young undergraduate at an inner city university, I had quite a couple of years coming from eastern Nowhere. In my first semester, I heard my first urban gunshot while waiting for the bus. I mean, I grew up in the country with a hunting father, so I heard gunshots before, but this was different. It was not aimed at a deer. A bunch of people backed toward the building. I flinched, I think, stood behind the three inch square stick holding up the bus stop. And some young turnip truck fall-offer said, "Please tell me that was a car backfiring." And some older weathered man rolled his eyes, "Freshman, you got a lot to learn."

It was not long after starting school that I realized the dorms and the surrounding area were some of the most dangerous in Philadelphia. It was not unusual to watch car break-ins occur from the dorm window. I settled for a while on the couch of some friends in a great center city neighborhood. To say we were broke is a massive understatement. If one of us worked, everyone got to eat. I worked at a counter which fed me, and barely covered the bi-weekly meal for the three of us and my couch rent. Frequently, we went with one meal a day. But you know, we were young and goofy, and having fun. In those days, I was a radio-television-film student, so I got to make experimental black and white videos in the alley next to my apartment. It was all exactly what I imagined living the urban life of an artist to be. I was in heaven.

I had three very good friends with whom I basically spent all my time. Two men and a woman. We used to hit this little twenty-four hour diner up the street, and drink coffee until ungodly hours and play the jukebox. The place was filled with unsavory types, post-clubbers, friends of ours, hustlers...it was exactly what a diner is supposed to be. One night, we went in there with just enough money to each get coffee and to play two songs on the juke. I think we choose two Bowie songs. And we laughed a great deal. Drank as much coffee as we could. This was our every night of poverty and school. The waiter came to our table and said, "All right, ladies (meaning all of us), you have a tab of thirty dollars, spend it wisely and remember your waiter."

We all looked around, "What are you talking about?" And he sighed a great heaving sigh of annoyance. "There was a man sitting there watching y'all. He said he remembered what it was like to have good friends, be in college, and be broke. He bought you dinner because he could see you were hungry. The only two things he said is to wait until he left to tell you and to tell you when you are old and forgetting what joy is to buy some undergraduate an anonymous dinner and then you will remember."


I know some people say that they never win anything, or nothing like that happens to them. And I think of myself as someone that things don't happen to, but the truth is, they do. One day I was working at a cafe, and I get a phone call.
"Angie? Angie K?"
"This is going to sound insane, but I listen to 93.5, and they just called your name and said where you work. If you call within ten minutes, you will get four hundred dollars."
"Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but I listen all the time waiting for my name, and it is never read, and well, your name was read. Here is the number. Call now."

Here is the thing. It was a country station that I never listen to. I was a manager at a cafe and we listened to cds of meaningful singer/songwriters. The cooks put my name in the sweepstakes for "Win While you Work," so they could win the money. They entered everyone working at the cafe thinking they would listen all the time. Of course, they also didn't particularly care for country music and turned the station before anyone won. I received a check for $400 and no one to thank.


Before I had children and got fat, I used to ride my bike everywhere. Before work, I would ride thirty or forty miles, and then hit the shower at work. I had a little messenger-type bike I bought for $60. I loved this bike. It was a steel-framed vintage Miyata with funky handlebars and awesome components. When I first became obsessed with riding, I crashed my bike and knocked out my front tooth, got fifteen stitches in my lip...it didn't deter me from riding the same route every day. I began riding charity rides, and organizing groups of people at work to ride with me. I rode for MS, which is my father's disease. I made some great cycling friends at work from all walks of the business--executives of the firm to drafters to accountants. It was just a great feeling of camaraderie. One afternoon, one of my riding buddies called my desk and told me he forgot his lock. Could he lock his bike to mine? No problem.

A shocking torrential downpour overtook the city that evening, and I worked very very late. I took a cab home, returning the next day to a shell of my bicycle. I mean, the bastards took everything. My pedals, my handlebars, my breaks...the dude I let borrow my lock and cable didn't lock the bike properly. Thieves saw an opening and probably figured I wasn't coming back that night. I can't even tell you how bummed I was. I mean, stealing someone's wheels is like a whole level of bad karma. I just spent the day moping, kicking proverbial cans...it was awful.

I got a call at about 5pm. It was one of the dudes I rode with. "Hey, Ang, I'm looking at your bike. Holy shit. Come down here. I'll drive you both home." So, I come down. I mean, seriously distraught and upset. He says, "How much did you love this bike, Ang?"
"A lot."
"Did it fit you? It looks small."
"No, it fit me like a glove. They took my pedals. MY PEDALS."
"Are you fixing this bike up?"
"I don't know. It's not worth much, fixing it up will cost more than it is worth."
"What kind of bike do you want?"
"I don't know. I'll probably get a proper road bike now. I'm due one anyhow."
"What about that one?" And he points to a brand new Trek road bike.
"What?" And another co-worker popped out. They chipped in together and bought me a new bike. They said through tears that I had given so much by riding my bike that they wanted to help me out. We actually went to the bike shop together, where I doubled their gift for a sweet, gorgeous ride. I just loaned that bike to a good friend, since I don't ride it much anymore. But watching it get loaded in her car choked me up...those guys changed my perception of the world just a little. It is a good place where community takes care of each other.


A few years ago, when I was working my corporate job. I read a book called Join Me, which I am fairly certain is out of print. It is about a man who inadvertently starts a cult. It is very funny, and very cool. He merely puts an ad in the paper that says, "Join me! Send me a passport photograph, your name and address to join me." And slowly, he starts getting people's photos, and he realizes now what? H e sort of jokingly started a cult, but what kind of cult? He wasn't religious or power hungry. So, he decides it will be a cult of kindness. On Fridays, they will do something good for a random stranger. They would get together on the weekend and talk about Friday, almost deliriously. It was addicting. Everyone was getting so much more out of giving then they thought possible. I gave it to another woman I worked with, and then another, and we began doing random goodness for strangers and those around us on Friday. One Friday I bought coffees for everyone in my office, the next Friday I bought fifteen daisies, and just put them on random seats of the Au Bon Pain with a note that said, "Be Kind."

One Friday, I walked into the restaurant below my office. I was giddy. I pointed at a table of two women in their twenties. They looked like interns or something. "I would like to pay their bill." The woman behind the counter didn't even bat an eye. As she rang me up, she said, "What do you want me to tell them?" And I thought about it. "Just tell them to do something nice for someone today." And I went on with my day, but all day I had this secret. I paid back the dude from the diner. Finally. Finally I did it.

Funnily, I also did the phone thing with someone. I used to listen to this 30s, 40s and 50s Golden Age of music station. It was on AM radio. I was working at the time as a gopher and artist assistant. We only had AM radio, and it was great music. They also did one of those things about calling in for a prize. They read a name--Anne Mary McCleary. (I am making up the name, though it was something very similar to that.) There were two in the phone book. I called the first one. "Sister Anne Mary."
"Hello? Sister?"
"Yes?" Oh, shit, it is a nun. I love and fear nuns like any good Catholic.
"Do you listen to 940 AM?"
" I am listening to 940 AM right now, and they just said your name for the call in contest. If you call now, you win something."
"Oh, well, aren't you a dear. I'll call." Click.

She won. I heard it a few minutes later. She won a vacation to Hawaii, which gave me such an amazing fantasy for the rest of the afternoon. Totally worthwhile to imagine old Sister Anne-Mary in Hawaii. In a habit. On the beach. With a margarita.

So, why am I telling all these stories? I was thinking about how one little thing in someone's life--a minute to call someone, to throw a twenty at some kids who are having a good night, to share your wealth and love of a sport with someone--can change the world. During this last year, I have focused on all many lousy hands I have been dealt, I almost forgot about all this magic. Even as I was thinking of all the pettiness of the last post, I also remembered the people who didn't give up, make gossip, take a no as a personal affront. I sent an email to one and said simply "Thank you for being my friend when it was hard." And she wrote back denying that she did anything, because she didn't do anything extraordinary except be decent, which some days feels extraordinary.

So, here is the deal, if you have read this far, I am asking you now to Join Me. Friday, October 16th, a day after we remember our babies, do something nice for someone. A random stranger. An older person who lives near you. Anyone. It doesn't matter what or how or why. Just do it. I'll post a blog then with my story, and in the comments, you can share yours. Let's change someone's day this week. Come on. It'll be fun.


  1. I will join you, Angie!

    This is a real Spartacus moment. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Brilliant post, brilliant stories, brilliant message. YOU ARE BRILLIANT!

  2. Oh Angie this was such a great and inspiring post! I love it!

    Did you have to pick this Friday though? I don't know that I can do much sitting in a hospital bed after my c-section... but you know what, I will give it a go. :)


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  4. I'll do it :)

    Lovely, lovely post. Exactly what I needed to read right now.

  5. Right with you, what an awesome idea.

    Your post, incredible. I feel like we just sat on a big couch with tea and warm blankets and you told me all this, I love it. xo

  6. You're a real gem of a human being, Angie. I will join you.

  7. I'm in! Wheels turning already...

  8. Angie,
    what a wonderful thing. I will gladly and with an open and loving heart do some kindness for some random stranger on Friday. I will do it and I will think of you, and our babies. I think it will make them proud of their mamas.

  9. i'll join you! but i won't send you my passport. :)

    thank you for this post. i have been having bad day, a despairing day, a day that feels like all the magical moments of my life are past and will never come back and maybe weren't that magical in the first place. so it was nice - really, really nice - to read these stories. you tell them beautifully. xo

  10. I am loving the image on the nun on the beach. I went to a Catholic college and still keep in touch with my favorite nun.

    I'll do it too! I'm probably spending the day at Sea World with the in-laws on Friday, but I'll find something!

  11. I think the fact that so many people have done such nice things for you speaks volumes as to the kind of person you are Angie. I will be joining you on your act of kindness. I can not promise it will happen Friday, but definitley this weekend. Thanks for inspiring us and getting our heads out of the gray skies. xx

  12. i think i gave you the book join me to read...and now i will join you!!!! friday i "kind" the shit outta someone...watch out greater philadelphia area!

  13. You rock, Ang. Seriously.

  14. i loved reading your stories angie. you are a great story teller and those experiences were beautiful. i was in tears reading about how that man bought you guys dinner.

    thanks for putting this out there...i too will join you all


  15. Thank you for a beautiful post,I'm sat here in tears. You have brightened my morning. I'll join you on Friday.

  16. Lovely Post... very good idea! I'm in with it. Friday is our day. Can't wait to hear all the different stories...

  17. Thank you, Angie, for these stories and this idea. Friday is a 14 month anniversary for me, and thinking of a way to make someone else's day better may take some of the sting out of it, or at least give me a better way of remembering.

  18. I just found you, from LFCA. I am in, I love it.

  19. Beautiful Angie! Thanks for sharing these stories. I love the starving film students getting a meal (I did j-school and my husband did film production in university) and can sooooo relate to the best of times in the leanest. I love your idea for a good Friday this week. (((Hugs)))

  20. ps - Loved that the sister won the holiday - I used to house-sit a convent for the sisters when they went on holidays!!

  21. I am with you. Great idea. A few years ago (and I am still thinking about it) the man ahead of us in the drive thru at D Donuts paid for our order. we got up to the window and it was taken care of. I will never forget that. I have been thinking about doing something like that and this is the perfect opportunity.

  22. Inspiring. Now I'm thinking...what randomly awesome thing could I do for a stranger? Pay their parking meter? Leave donuts on someone's front steps? I'll think of something deeper than that. Cool post - thanks for this!

  23. I love it and I'm totally in. My best friend is here from CA and I know she'll help me come up with something cool...

  24. love it! Friday it is...thanks for the inspiration.

  25. i'm totally in. fun read after staying away all week. hopefully i can leave my couch and be in the world tomorrow.
    i've been thinking about how much others have done for me all year and its really my time to start giving. tomorrow seems as appropriate day as any.

  26. What a great idea. Count me in!

  27. BEAUTIFUL!! I love this, Angie. Thank you for sharing these amazing stories.

  28. Hey Angie I love your blog and gave you an award. Come see :)

  29. What a great post and great idea!! I love this stuff, I hope it works:)


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