The summer after my junior year in college, my friend Ruby and I did the whole back-packing thing. Three billion countries in thirty days with naught but a distended fanny pack and 40-litre book-bag to contain the accumulated sprawl of our lives.
You know the deal. Old news.
Anyway, one night in Venice (perhaps our first), we and a few friends we’d met at our campsite ended up missing the last bus from town back to the site. Or, more accurately, we took the wrong bus, going in the opposite direction of the campsite, because we misunderstood the bus driver. By the time we had the sense to turn our heads window-ward and observe the darkened and very unfamiliar stretch of highway before us, we were very far away.
I guess we were grumbling about this, or, you know, maybe shrieking hysterically and pinballing up and down the aisles of the bus, (but probably just grumbling), because by the time the bus squeaked into its final resting place, a fellow passenger had grown keen to our plight. He told us the bad news: there were definitely no more buses around, so we’d have to hope for a stray cab–also improbable at this hour–and then, very genuinely, wished us the best of luck. Everyone filed off the bus, and we made our way to the side of the road to wait.
This was some desolate shit, I tell you what. Hardly any cars passed, none of them cabs, and no one was stopping. No one was even slowing down. They were probably speeding up, come to think of it. No one blamed them; we understood. Bunch of scraggly kids on the side of the road in the middle of the night. We would have done the same.
Over an hour passed before someone finally heeded the call of our out-stretched thumbs. We couldn’t believe it. We may have been delirious at this point, sure of nothing but that what we were seeing was a kind of collective wine-drunk mirage. We approached the car, cautious, nervous, desperate.
Our rescuer turned out to be the roommate of the man we’d spoken to on the bus. Both men were West African, new-ish to Italy. He told us our bus-friend had come home and told him about us–that we were lost, that it was likely we were still on the side of the road, waiting–and so, knowing nothing about us but this, he came to find us. It was almost two a.m., maybe later; we figured out during the ride that he had to be at work at seven. He didn’t mind.
He drove us to a hotel in town where it would be easy for us to get a cab. We pooled some money together in the back seat, offered it to him. He refused to take it. He didn’t want it. He hadn’t come to help us for that, but because we were lost, in a country we couldn’t even begin to properly navigate, in dark night. That was reason enough for him.
I think of this man still. I think about him sometimes in this city, where it’s hard even to smile at someone on the street, or be smiled at, without wondering: what do they want from me? Do they think I want something from them? I have learned the suspicions of a big city here. I have sucked them down and let them bottom in my belly. I wrap them around me sometimes like a coat and they allow me to cordon myself off from kindness, from being kinder.
I do not want this. I want to remember this tired foreign man who offered a ride to other tired, foreign strangers in the middle of the night on a barren freeway in the outskirts of Venice. I want to remember that that kind of kindness is still possible, that it’s a choice we make, that we can keep it.
So, thank you, West African man whose name I cannot remember. You’re really awesome.
A challenge/contest of sorts:
In the spirit of said man, I’d like to offer a drawing of a creature of your choosing to the first three people who respond to this post with their story of witnessed kindness. It doesn’t have to be long (I tend to ramble…), but I want to hear it. (Granted, I don’t even know if three people are reading this, you know? But, let’s give it a go.)
The creature can be mailed to you, anywhere, and if you don’t have a creature in mind–I use the word “creature” loosely here–I can create one for you!! Joy of joys!!!
p.s. even if more than three people are reading this, and respond, I still want you to post your story.