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The kindness of strangers

Sometimes the people who get you through are total strangers who make a difference in your day or life and move on, oblivious.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

I’M EXTRAORDINARILY BLESSED IN THE WAY of friends and family. I feel lucky that solace, advice, and a steadying sense of shared history are a mere phone call or digital tap away. Sometimes, though, the people who get you through are total strangers, folks you cross paths with for a few minutes or even less, who make a difference in your day or your life and move on, oblivious.

In my 20s I moved from San Francisco to Manhattan to pursue my (speech-obliterating cough) acting career. The Bay Area is fuzzy and friendly and relatively warm. Manhattan is spiky and cold and exhilarating. I was terrified. And my first few months there were probably the loneliest of my life. I wasn’t sure I was going to stay. One miserable winter morning on the bus, late for the day job I hated, I asked a woman near me what time it was. She looked closely at my face and said with great tenderness, “It’s 9 o’clock, baby.” It was as if she had looked into my soul and saw my self-doubt and fear. And when she smiled at me, it was as if the city itself was opening its arms. I stayed for four years.

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More recently, my husband and I realized that our tiny North Shore investment property had some (very bad) problems. In order to tackle one of them, I called in an exterminator. He told me the crawl space below our cottage required not mousetraps but small-animal traps. They were expensive, he said, but he happened to have one in his truck that he’d like to just give us; it was an extra, he said, and no one would miss it. I protested, wanting to pay to rent it. Finally he snapped, “You just don’t know how to accept a gift, do you?” It was true. I loved giving presents, but I’d always felt uncomfortable receiving them. Now when someone is uncommonly generous, I just smile and say thank you, and I think of that rat trap still nestled in the bowels of our (impossible to sell) beach house.

And then there was the guy I bought a bagel from on my way to see Stephanie, one of my dearest friends, dying way too young. I was worried about our visit. It had just begun to dawn on me that though she’d fought it off for the better part of a decade, the cancer was going to win. I wanted to be completely there for her in every way I could, but I worried that my grief would get in the way. I was lost in my own head when the bagel guy said something about the temperature. Yes, I concurred, it was a great day. “It’s a great day every day,” said Bagel Dude. I looked up. The man wasn’t smiling. He was serious, and he was right. Every day we draw breath is a great day.

That morning Stephanie and I had our first honest conversation about what was going to happen to her and how she’d like to spend the time she had left. We’d live for each great day.

My kids sometimes give me a hard time about the opportunistic conversations I have when we’re out and about. It’s certainly not the quickest way to get things done, and as I am unencumbered by the sort of inner timetable most people seem to take for granted, my habit has resulted in some egregiously late arrivals and departures.

My two daughters also think it’s amusing that I enjoy doing exactly what I’ve warned them against their whole lives. Not talking to strangers is a good policy when you’re young. But the older I get, the more I treasure these random exchanges. And sometimes I think maybe they’re not as random as I used to believe.

Carolyn R. Russell is a writer in West Newbury. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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