Every day is filled with ways we can make a difference in a stranger’s life.
Note: This essay introduced my series of personal essays called Connections. It was the first guest essay featured by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
REMEMBER THE CLIMAX of Crocodile Dundee, set on a New York subway platform (video below)? Convinced that Sue Charlton, the reporter he loves, will marry her editor, Dundee has “gone walkabout” to board the next train out of Manhattan. Arriving, Sue spots him on the far side of the crowded platform. She calls, but he can’t hear.
From forty feet, her call is heard by a scruffy-bearded black man in a bandana. “What’s up, lady?”
“I’ve got to talk to that man, down at the end,” she shouts. “The one in the black hat.”
He peers toward Dundee and calls. “Hey!”
A white construction worker looks up. “The lady here wants to talk to the guy in the black hat!” calls the black man.
The construction worker spots Dundee and calls: “Hey, fella!” He whistles. “The lady here wants to see ya!”
Dundee looks up. “What does she want?”
The two riders relay his question to Sue. “Tell him—not to leave,” she says. “I’m not gonna marry Richard!”
The two men pass the word. “Why not?” shouts Dundee.
They relay his reply. “Tell him,” says Sue, “I love him.” She calls: “I love you!”
Dundee grins to a neighbor: “‘I love you!’ Tell her, uh—I’ll tell her meeself.” The two men pass the word: “He’s coming through!”
But Dundee can’t budge. The construction worker exclaims, “It’s just so crowded here, we’re jammed in like sheep!” By now, however, the entire platform wants to see the lovers united. At Dundee’s feet, two men lock hands and hoist him above the throng. Urged on by all, he strides atop shoulders to Sue’s waiting arms. They embrace to wild cheers.
The scene may be cinema’s crowning moment of a loving act en masse. It resonated with viewers in 1986. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of such an experience?
We can be. That is the theme of these essays. Strange as it may seem, there is a community of individuals among us—lovers at large—for whom such acts are almost daily fare. Where others remain bystanders, they act. Where others remain spectators, they become players, while helping to write the script. In their world, there are no strangers.
Many of us can’t imagine wanting to get cozy with a stranger on a crowded train. We’d rather be stuck in traffic, in a cabin for one. Are there really people who welcome such intimate encounters? Yes. You’ve met them; they are your fellow travelers. The rider on the elevator who informed you that there was a piece of lint stuck in your hair. The woman in the checkout line who happened to have a few spare coins when you fumbled for change. The driver behind you who, when others were honking because your car had stalled, walked over and said, “Murphy’s Law strikes again. Let’s see if we can push your heap out of harm’s way.”
Within their ranks, many are devotees of the 1978 guide to personal growth, The Road Less Traveled. Its author, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, held that we grow spiritually only when we identify with an ever-larger slice of peoplehood, “creating love where love did not exist before.”
I encountered one of Peck’s foot soldiers on a cloudy Sunday in 1987. Recently divorced in Atlanta, I had taken the train downtown with my small son, hoping to view the city from atop the IBM Tower. When we arrived, the tower was closed. Well, we could at least pose for a photo on its steps; I had my camera. But where, on this bleak Sunday, would I find a willing photographer?
Strolling past the tower was an attractive brunette. Perfect. “Excuse me,” I began, “Would you mind taking a picture of my son and me standing in front of the tower?”
“My pleasure,” she replied. We began to set up the shot. Then I grew bold. “I know this request will sound strange,” I began, “but do you think—” “You want me to lie on the sidewalk,” she interrupted, “and shoot a vertical to include the entire tower. No problem.”
I could not have known that this passerby was a lover at large. How did she come to be there? Was it luck? Coincidence? Or, as Peck suggests, Grace?
Perhaps all of the above. When you become a lover at large, close encounters begin to happen routinely; whether you give or receive, you encourage the encounter to happen. You become used to sharing intimate exchanges with the ticket holder waiting in line behind you, exchanges that enrich your day…and theirs. One moment, you’re strangers; a moment later, fellow travelers.
In sharing some of my most memorable encounters, I hope to encourage you to join this community. To make a difference, in the most mundane surroundings. I believe that many good-hearted souls stand ready to enlist, foot soldiers in waiting.
I arrived at this conclusion one night in Baltimore. Stopping to buy gasoline, I noticed a car with its hood up, parked in an unlit corner of the service station. In the driver’s seat sat a woman. I waved to her; she cracked her window. “Do you need a jump start?” I asked.
“Thanks,” she replied briskly, “but a friend will be here in 45 minutes.” Up went the window. I sensed she didn’t feel comfortable with me so close in the dark.
Walking back to my car, I spotted a woman who had just finished pumping. “I need a favor,” I explained. “I think the woman over there is afraid to let me jump-start her car. Can you go tell her you’ll stand nearby until I’m done?”
“Sure,” the woman smiled. She returned with a sad face. “She says her friend will be coming soon. Oh, well.”
As I pumped gasoline, the second woman began to drive away. But first, she turned into my lane, rolled down her window, and smiled. “Thanks for asking me.” ■
©2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky