December 03, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

After years of feeling victimized, hiding from the world and asking the Universe, "Why me?" only loudly enough for it to hear, as of very recently I've learned to accept the perils of happenstance, the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune. I'm remarkably calm under diress, be it because of an acutely terrible event, or the slow, chronic torture of running on empty and depleting my coffer while I wait for something good to happen.

But lately, when bad things happen, the Universe shows its true colors, and somehow, serendipitously, everyday people - strangers - have stepped up to help out.

In my times of greatest need, I am regaining my faith in humanity.

It's not just the pizza truck guy who spotted me a Diet Coke when I only had enough money for a slice, though thank God for him...

The night before Thanksgiving, I returned home to my apartment building in Astoria after a full day of errands, Weight Watcher meeting, and celebrating the Eve with friends. At 4 a.m., I fumbled through my purse for my housekeys as I juggled a number of other packages and bags that I'd collected throughout the course of the day. I couldn't feel the keys, but maybe they'd gotten buried under my wallet or camera, or entangled in my handsfree headset cord, or tossed into the back zippered pocket where only certain supplies that shall remain unseen are hidden. I dropped everything to the ground and started digging, performing an excavation that must have been so loud - or was I swearing? - that it roused a second floor neighbor, who called out to me from his window.

"Hey, you need some help? You locked out?" he called out.

"I'm fine I'm fine I'm fine shit shit shit shit," I insisted, not wanting to broadcast my predicament and certain that my keys must be in there somewhere. I'd never lost keys before.

"Oh God oh God oh God..." I chanted, now searching every bag in my possession. I pulled my cellphone out to call my roommate, who was likely not home, not awake, or so otherwise occupied he wouldn't notice the incoming call.

I must've dialed my roommate ten times by the time I looked over and saw a pair of stocking feet standing next to me, attached to a pair of bare, hairy legs that belonged to my neighbor. He'd come downstairs to fetch me, he said, not wanting to leave me alone out in the cold in the middle of the night.

Thankfully he was calm enough to extract the location of my apartment window from me, and lo and behold, the window from which he'd called to me shared a fire escape with my kitchen, though technically he lived in the building next door (connected on the outside, but not by a hallway on the inside).

Quickly enough, he was pulling me to my feet, begging me not to cry as I explained I must've left the keys at the UPS Store while checking my mail. He then brought me upstairs, through his window, out onto the fire escape, and over to my kitchen, realizing the window was too small and positioned too awkwardly over the sink to provide a decent entry for us.

"That's a sink. We're not going in there," he declared.

So he hopped over the fire escape onto another ledge outside of my living room window, helping me over the railing and holding my shoes as I hiked up the skirt to my flimsy red dress, bare feet and legs flailing. He tore the screen off the window, pulled the pane up, and guided me inside, handing over my shoes as he closed the window back up and replaced the screen with a wave and a blown kiss.

I haven't seen him again yet to thank him. But I still can hardly comprehend how lucky I was that he entered my life that night.

This afternoon, I was full-swing into my second day of meetings in LA and felt a bit discombobulated after a 6:45 a.m. rise and two cups of coffee. I arrived to my 12:30 lunch an unheard of 15 minutes early, and took the time to find and squeeze into a free parking spot a couple blocks away. I leisurely wandered to the restaurant, realized I was the first to arrive, and decided to buy a magazine while I waited. As the cashier rang me up, I once again found myself fumbling for my purse, looking for something that was regrettably, devastatingly not there: my wallet.

My mind raced. Had it fallen out of my purse at Steve's house and was merely resting on the coffee table? Had I tossed it onto the passenger seat of Steve's car when I'd stopped to fill the tank? Had I ::gasp:: left it at the gas station?

I had no choice. I graciously apologized, excused myself, and headed back to my car. But as I turned down Clark Street in West Hollywood, I became disoriented, my mind racing as fast as my feet. I walked the entire block without seeing the Volvo I knew I had parked just a few minutes before. I paced up and down, certain that I'd just not seen it, that the cars parked in front and behind me had moved, rendering my car incognito.

I quickly determined I was losing my mind. I imagined having to call Steve and tell him his car had been stolen, or taken, or misplaced, or lost, or kidnapped, or abducted by aliens.

And suddenly my mind reoriented itself, and I realized I'd been walking on the wrong side of the road, and that I'd approached from the south and had parked across the street from where I was looking.

When I got back to the car, I immediately opened the passenger-side door and rifled through what littered the seat - my coat, scarf, and tote bag. I felt and looked, looked and felt, and found nothing.

My hands instinctively reached for my cheeks, flanking my face in a silent gesture of panic, furrowed brow and bulging eyeballs. I started to pace.

I then noticed a pale peach-colored piece of paper stuck into the driver's-side door.

A parking ticket?


It was one of those slips that the mail carrier leaves in your mailbox when you're not home to sign for a package and you have to go to the post office to pick it up.

On it, there was a handwritten note that read: "Come find the mail lady on this block. I have your wallet."

Conveniently, I was now parked directly in front of a mail truck.

I snatched the postcard out and gazed up and down the block, legs spread wide, not knowing which direction to start off in. I stumbled north, then south, haphazardly, in a panic. I finally spotted her in the outer foyer of an apartment building with her mail cart, sifting through envelopes.

"I think I might have to hug you right now..." I told her, neglecting to introduce myself.

"Oh, are you the one? I've got your wallet!" she said. "Come with me to my truck."

It turns out that somehow, in my hurry and distraction, and perhaps my lack of routine in driving, I'd left my wallet on top of the car. I have no idea when I did that, but I can only imagine it was while I was pumping gas. Curiously, that was two hours before, which means I would have had to have driven from the gas station to Steve's house, parked outside of Steve's house, driven to the restaurant, and parked two blocks away - all with the wallet on top of the car, not falling off, not being stolen or its meager contents pilfered.

"I figured you must've gone to a restaurant nearby. I thought if I didn't find you, I'd just mail it to you," she continued as I just kept saying "Thank you" in disbelief.

I didn't know what to do once I regained possession of my wallet, and put it in its rightful place inside my purse. Should I give her some money? Should I get her address and send her a gift? Should I hug her, which is what I really wanted to do?

Instead, I did nothing but thank her and walk away, so I could arrive to my lunch meeting a typical 15 minutes late. As I stepped across the grass toward the sidewalk, she pointed down at my feet and said, "Watch out for that crap there." Another crisis averted.

I don't know who or what has been taking care of me lately. For the first time in a very long time, I don't feel alone - not in my apartment, nor my neighborhood, nor the world. Even nearly 3000 miles away from home, somebody was looking out for me.

I don't wish for any more bad things to happen. But I find myself so grateful for having experienced - and survived - the bad things that have happened. I am astounded at the kind of help I have received when I've needed it so badly, but have refused to - or haven't been able to - ask for it.

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