Uninformed Comment

The kindness of strangers

Posted in Geography, Personal, Reminiscences and anecdotes by uninformedcomment on July 22, 2009

Continental Trailways bus

  • Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” – Henry James
  • The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” – Charles Kuralt, US journalist
  • “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” – Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

In 1979, at the age of 18, I’d saved up enough money from a lucrative regular gig playing keyboards at a local venue to travel to the USA for a few weeks.  I stayed with relatives in Anaheim, California, and it was to be my only visit to the country so far.

During that time, I decided to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  I didn’t have a car, so I decided to take an overnight bus alone from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, Arizona, this being a cheap and convenient way of making the trip.  After a couple of days hanging around the Canyon (the most stupendously breathtaking sight I’ve ever seen), I boarded a bus for the return journey.  My seat was on the left of the aisle, about halfway down the bus; another man occupied the window seat next to me, and the rest of the bus was pretty full of people.

I tried making conversation with the guy to my left, but he obviously wasn’t interested in small talk, so I settled down for a quiet journey, looking forward to returning to my relatives back in Anaheim.  As night descended and the bus ground along Route 66 through the Mojave desert, I fell asleep, waking two or three hours later.

Eat your heart out, Kerouac

Eat your heart out, Kerouac

The first thing I became aware of on waking up was that my wallet, which had been in my right-hand trouser pocket, next to the aisle, was missing.  Presumably, I thought, I’d dropped it – I looked around , but couldn’t see it anywhere.  Damn.   Maybe it had slid along the aisle and someone had picked it up.  Maybe someone had managed to slide it out of my pocket while I slept. Maybe it was the guy next to me, although he’d have had to lean over me to get to it.

Whichever way, if someone else had taken the wallet, they’d have been disappointed.  Inside was my British driving licence and nothing else. Sensibly, I’d moved all my valuables – cash, traveller’s cheques, and so on –  into a zipped bag stuffed securely between my hip and the side of the seat.  A driving licence is easily replaced, and I didn’t really need it with me.  Losing the wallet was no big deal.

Still, I told the driver and he announced a message over the bus’s sound system.  “You won’t see that wallet again”, he told me sadly.  He was right.  I returned to my seat.


Some time later, I was awakened again by an old guy with two hats, who was standing over me, shaking my shoulder gently.  One of his hats was on his head, the other in his hand.  He looked like something straight out of a Steinbeck novel: worn bib overalls, straw hat on his head, ragged moustache.  He was smiling sadly, and holding out the other hat, upturned, to me.  “Here, take it,” he said.  “We’ve had a little collection for you”.  Every head in the bus was turned in our direction.  In the hat was a pile of coins and notes.

I was staggered.  Apart from the quiet guy next to me and the driver, I’d not even spoken to any of these people – hell, I hadn’t even made eye contact with any of them.  I was as strange a stranger as I could be – a foreigner who just happened to be on the same bus.  “Sure wouldn’t like to lose my money when I’m on a vacation overseas” said the old man, who looked like he’d never even been to the nearest city.  “Please don’t judge America on that one thing.”

I stood up and looked around the bus, overcome with emotion, and managed to blurt out a thank-you, telling them I was extremely grateful, that I was moved by their generosity, that I had nothing but respect and love for their beautiful country, thanked them again, and sat down to a round of applause and smiles and blessings.  If I’d been capable back then, I’m sure I’d have burst into tears.

US coins and banknotes

Yet I hadn’t lost a cent.  In fact, I was probably carrying more cash in my small bag than most of the people on the bus.  Much as I was moved, I didn’t need or deserve their money.  I wanted to give it back, but how?  I’ll bet the old guy hadn’t written receipts to everyone, or remembered who’d given how much; it would be a clumsy and stupid thing to suggest that they take it back.  I couldn’t think of anything to do but to accept their money with grace.

A few hours later, the bus pulled into the station at San Bernadino, not too far from our destination;  we disembarked, most of us to catch the connecting bus to Los Angeles, which was due in a little over an hour.   Not wanting to hang around a bus station for an hour, I headed off to a nearby shopping mall, and wandered around idly looking at the shops.

I soon found myself in a record store, where to my delight there was a rack full of Blue Note jazz LPs, all for a dollar each.  A clearance sale.  Back home, most of these records would be unavailable even in London, and if imported would fetch fifteen times that price.  Not to mention that I loved jazz, and still do – to say I wanted them was understatement indeed.

I could have filled my arms with them, bought a suitcase and stuffed it full, and paid the extra baggage home, and still had money to spare – without even thinking about touching the pocketful of coins and notes from the bus.

Blue Note jazz albums

But, of course, I couldn’t.  There was no way I could get back on that connecting bus, clutching bags full of LPs, to meet again those kind people.  In fact, I couldn’t really buy a thing – those guys thought I’d be getting toothpaste or underwear or something with their money, not adding to  my jazz collection.

I left the shop empty-handed, sure, but grinning and shaking my head.  Not often karmic fate is so bloody obvious, is it?


3 Responses

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  1. Andrew Petcher said, on July 30, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Good story, shame about the LPs!

  2. Paul Madarasz said, on December 20, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Worthy of O. Henry.

    • uninformedcomment said, on December 21, 2009 at 12:35 am

      Thank you Paul, quite a compliment. Except, of course, he actually wrote stories; this one just happened to me.

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