biographical / Non-fiction

The Kindness of Strangers

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We were down in New Orleans, which is just what you’d hope. People were incredibly friendly, the music ubiquitous, and the food plentiful and delicious. The very first place we sat down, we sat down next to a magician. He was casually flipping through his cards, complaining about his roommates, wearing a leather fedora. Magician stuff.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think of New Yorkers as unfriendly. I think New Yorkers can be some of the friendliest people you’re going to meet, but there’s a certain amount of reserve that comes from that amount of density, pace of life, winter, whatever. It was, I’ll admit, pretty novel, though, to be in a New Orleans where conversations can be struck up so easily. And what is travel for, really, other than novel ways of living and meeting strangers?

Anyway, the next night we went out to Tipitina’s, a music venue of some repute, off in the distance. Hit some Superdome traffic. Our Uber driver drove a big truck, was six-five, from Detroit, and had come to New Orleans to play basketball. His wife worked for Harley Davidson. These are the things you learn. Easy chatting.

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Tipitina’s was having some Cajun music that night. It was sparsely attended, so sparsely that the band conversed with the people they didn’t already know by name. So that was a family from California, a couple from Washington DC, and us, a couple from Brooklyn. They said they had just been in Brooklyn at Jalopy, where we had planned to go the previous Friday. An older man served some very salty red beans and rice.

With a big empty dance floor and nowhere to hide, visitor and locals alike got dancing. Eventually one of those little Southern ladies with big hair and utterly gentle demeanors came over and diplomatically offered us a few tips—Cajun dancing apparently has some sort of a weird two-forward, two-back step, except for the waltzes, which we crushed, or that one song in 5/4, which we watched from the side.

This being the South and a public sort of dance, eventually Julie was asked to dance by a shorter, older man, whose Cajun dancing was done with much more conviction but as little grace as my own, unless it’s supposed to be much herkier and jerkier than I thought. Seeing long-limbed Julie and this guy who was roughly her height stopping-and-starting across the floor was pretty fantastic though.

The guy’s name was Chuck, and as dancing wore down and the band stopped, we got to chatting, like you do. His deep-set eyes and flat face reminded me of James Carville, but some of that could’ve been his James Carville-esque accent. I guess that’s just a Louisiana accent. At any rate he wasn’t terrifying looking like James Carville. Just a really nice guy.

Chuck recommended we go from Tipitina’s to a bar called the Maple Leaf, which was pretty far and in the opposite direction of where we were staying, but he knew the band that was playing, and didn’t think we should miss ’em. Other people piped in that they really were a good band, and the second sets didn’t get going for another hour anyway. I thought that this was my favorite aspect of the Crescent City: everyone in New Orleans knew the rhythms of the bands, when they played and when they went on break. It was like a beach community where everyone is attuned to the tides.

Chuck offered us a ride and being the stilted Yankee that I am (and also having been warned about New Orleans’s dangerous side many times) asked if it was on his way. It wasn’t, but he didn’t mind, his truck was right out front. The bartender said, “Yeah, get a ride with Chuck, he’s a good guy. I’ll see you over there.”

So that pretty much settled it. Courtesy can be obliging.

We hopped into Chuck’s really clean truck and he began telling us about all the local musicians he really likes, and he knows them all by name and where they play and who’s a really good guitar player. Chuck himself is not a good musician, he told us. He only ever gets to play the castanets and even then he’s not allowed to play too loudly.

The conversation turned to the time Chuck visited New York, which is where it gets really interesting.

“I had just had eye surgery and couldn’t read the bus stop sign,” he said. “So I had to ask the person next to me on the street, and they were more than happy to help.”

Then when Chuck needed to get off the bus, much more to his amazement, everyone on the sidewalk waited for him to gingerly get down before getting on. Chuck marveled at the politeness and charity of New Yorkers.

And so did I. I mean, helping someone who can’t see the sign and waiting for someone with a visible handicap is sub-basic human decency, I think. It’d be malicious not to do something as easy as the former, and harmful to yourself and everyone else to just barrel onto a bus while a semi-blind person tries to get down (make no mistake, though, people do that).

No, I was impressed by Chuck. This guy was going out of his way to give two strangers a ride—I mean, we’re nice but we’re not like, an honor to be around. And his memories of New York, the ones that he shares, are about the human decency and kindness that he was treated to.

And again, it’s not that New York is unkind, but examples of random acts of human terribleness leap to my mind far easier than kindness. Sometimes it seems like hostility is dealt out exclusively to those who deserve it least. Especially when I compare it to New Orleans.

But who knows? Maybe it’s a certain amount of selection bias, you know? It seems like the natural evolutionary thing to look for would be threats or dangers or whatever, and you’d let people’s courtesy or whatever drift by and be forgotten.

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But Chuck doesn’t, and look at the kind of person he is! We got to the Maple Leaf, he told us to “laissez les bon temps rouler!” in his James Carville sort of accent, and shook our hands and drove off. He went out of his way and wasn’t even going to stop in for, as it turns out, the crawfish boil that was happening that night (a story for another time).

Maybe looking for kindness begets it. Maybe some people are just on a better wavelength. Maybe climate and population density and whatever else combine to produce certain mental states that lead to certain actions, leading you to become the type of person who doesn’t mind being relegated to the castanets. Maybe New York is really mean and everywhere I travel from now on is going to seem incredibly kind.

Sometimes in my better moments I’ll feel humbled by the immense kindness that I’ve been greeted with throughout my life. And I guess this another one, down in New Orleans, which is just what you’d hope. People were incredibly friendly, the music ubiquitous, and the food plentiful and delicious.

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