The kindness of strangers

I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers. Yes, the original line from “A Streetcar Named Desire” is, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Far be it for me to suggest that Tennessee Williams chose the wrong verb; still, my stated difference, while subtle, is an important one.

The other day was one of “those days.” I’d had a ton to accomplish before picking up one of my children early from school; she had a crucial appointment with a specialist who would hopefully get to the bottom of her new-ish chronic back pain. This is the child who H A T E S it when I’m late. So imagine my smugness when I jumped in my car with plenty of time to get to school a’ l’heure. And then picture the look on my face as the engine refused to turn over.

Our car is one of those whose engine click-click-clicks in desperation -- rather than giving off that human-like smokers’ cough sound -- signaling it’s done, dead, tot. Unfortunately, I’m overly familiar with our car’s expired-engine exhalation; it always makes it at the most inopportune times. Thank God I was in the garage and not out and about, on a freeway or something.

I remained cool, calm. I had recently reset my Apple password so I could download things at will onto my phone. It took mere seconds for the clever little Uber app to show up on my screen. I even figured out the few keystrokes required to summon the non-taxi ride service. And its map feature showed an eager Uber driver only 1.3 miles away, a 10-minute wait. Perfect! Except the little car icon never started moving. Refresh, refresh, refresh. No moving car. So I called a real taxi service; it would be a 30-minute wait. As my calm and cool dissipated, I said a tight “thank you” and hung up. And checked my phone again. I clearly had made at least one crucial mistake downloading Uber...and then, there -- pop! -- onto my screen went the anticipated anxious text message from my daughter: “I don’t mean to be a nag, but where are you?”

I looked across the street. Our neighbors, kind snowbirds who only days before had returned from their Desert escape, were washing their exterior windows and had their garage door open. Revealing both of their luxury cars. I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask them to borrow a car, did I?

I tentatively walked across the street and just as the man of the house was finishing his sprucing-up work and about to close the door behind him, I felt myself transform into a 10-year-old child, the kind lost in the mall and uncertain where her mommy went. “Mr. Smith?” (not his real name) I inquired, in a soprano voice reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. “Could I possibly borrow your car…” I started, while struggling to squeak out my tale of woe and desperation.

I thought for sure that this family patriarch from the South -- with a great accent and “red” voting record to prove it -- would politely say, “Gosh, I’m sorry for your predicament, but no ma’am.”

Instead, he reached into the pocket of his white shorts, gently cinched by a belt beneath his full middle, and handed me the keys. To his stark-white 2015 Porsche Cayenne SUV. You can look up the price. It’s a very expensive car.

I swallowed hard and instantly aged from the 10-year-old at the mall to the 16-year-old newly minted licensed driver. “Golly, this is the most luxurious car I’ve ever been in, let alone driven,” I said stupidly as I slid onto a camel-colored leather seat. I could feel my bobble-headedness exuding idiocy.

On the freeway, nearly at the doctor’s office (and only 15 minutes late after all that AAA-supporting drama), my daughter turns to me from her spotless leather passenger seat and says, “You’re driving really cautiously.” I told her to go search on her phone for the cost of the borrowed vehicle. “Oh. OK.”

We returned home about 90 minutes later -- diagnosis: cracked lumbar vertebrae -- and I relinquished the vehicle (and waited for AAA to jump my erstwhile jalopy). Now an experienced Porsche SUV driver, I regained my 40something composure as I profusely thanked my neighbor (with fresh berries and an abundant bouquet of lavender from our garden) for his kindness.

That day, I depended on a ride. I relied on my neighbor for it. A subtle difference, for sure, but a difference nonetheless. It’s that eye to literary detail that Merridawn and I put into all our writing projects. The smallest tweak can make the biggest impact.

Granted, Mr. Smith is no stranger; we’ve had a 15-year neighborly relationship. But never had I asked anything major of him or him or his wife, nor them us. Sure, we’ll occasionally drag one another’s garbage bins to the curb or “keep an eye on the house” when one or the other is out of town. So it seems all those small kindnesses indeed forged a trusting relationship, and Mr. Smith knew that in letting me drive his splendid vehicle, he could rely on getting it back, unscathed.

The other day, he called me on the phone, and I was happy to hear his jovial Southern drawl. The couple will be out of town for an entire day, and they can’t take their yappy Havanese with them. He asked if I could let out the dog to poop. By implication, he was asking if I could scoop it too. It only seems fair.

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