The Kindness of Strangers

It’s not often you meet a really kind stranger; someone who is naturally a nice person and without trying, without fanfare, is just genuinely kind.

I met one such person last week. On an airplane. I blogged a few days ago about how poorly United Airlines treated me on my flight from Orlando to DC. My return flight was a much more pleasant experience, because of a kind stranger.

United, in their infinite wisdom, stuck me in a center seat on my return flight. As I boarded the plane and made my way to my seat I was grumbling to myself about the cosmic injustice of it all. A poor flight up and now a middle seat on the way back – I was really irked at United.

I sat in my middle seat and stared blankly at the seat in front of me while an infant somewhere behind me started making noises loud enough to give a singing blue whale pause. I looked up after a moment and saw a young Hispanic man staring at me. He pointed to the window sat and said, “That’s my seat.”

I stood and started to move out of the row and into the aisle when he softly said “You can have the window.”

I shrugged and continued to move into the aisle. “No,” he said, “I’m just going to sleep the whole way. You take the window if you want.”

I wanted to argue, because I was already in a bad mood, and because his generosity was so unexpected I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was polite, though, and asked him if he was sure he wanted to give up the window seat.

At this time people were starting to stack up behind him. He nodded and I, bemusedly, thanked him and moved into the window seat. I grinned on the inside; this might not be a bad flight after all.

The plane slowly filled up, as planes are wont to do, and we were almost ready for takeoff when the flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and informed us that we were delayed. Apparently, there weren’t enough sodas on the plane and we needed to wait for the catering truck to deliver more refreshments.

I immediately felt better – balance was restored in the universe. The random kindness of this stranger was balanced out by the ineptitude of United Airlines. This was reality I could understand.

The delay went on, and on, and on. First the catering truck was MIA; no one knew where it was. Then, we learned that it had went to the wrong airplane and dropped off the load – so it had to go back and get more refreshments.

All the while the blue whale kid was getting louder and louder.

After a few minutes, the Hispanic man next to me pulled a paper out of his pocket and opened it. It was a letter. He saw me staring and shyly told me, “It’s from my girlfriend.” Embarrassed to be caught staring, I smiled and looked out the window.

Curiosity quickly overcame my embarrassment, though, and I surreptitiously glanced back at his letter. It was in Spanish, and started with the words “Mi Bebe;” or “My Baby” in English. I am not fluent in Spanish, but living in Florida, having a Puerto Rican sister-in law, and working for a minority-owned, mostly Hispanic, company has made me marginally fluent.

His girlfriend goes to UCLA and he was visiting her before he started Basic Training for the Air Force. He was on his way home from LA to Kissimmee, FL and she had written him a long love letter, filled with the lovey things young lovers say to one another. I softened a bit as I read, thinking of my recent wedding and honeymoon.

With a loud, sad, sigh the young man put his letter back into his jacket pocket. Did I forget to mention that his traveling clothes were, well, sharp? Not a business suit, but nice slacks, a button down shirt, and a tweed jacket. It reminded me of how people used to dress up, just a little bit, to travel. Not like today where people fly in pajamas. I found myself wondering just who this kid was, how he was raised, and what was going on in his life. I felt like he was in the wrong time; his manners, his dress, and the fact that he was exchanging hand-written letters with his love seemed more fitting to the 1950’s than 2009.

As he put his letter away he reached into his jacket and pulled out an over-sized Hershey’s bar, with almonds. He very meticulously unwrapped it – he did not rip the foil. And laid it out in front of him.

He looked at me and said “Would you like a piece of chocolate?”

I was floored. Who WAS this kid? Why was he so nice? Why was he so quietly nice? I really, really, wanted the chocolate, but I declined. His niceness was so refreshing, but so unexpected I felt just a little uncomfortable.

And I was suddenly ashamed of myself for feeling uncomfortable. What kind of world do we live in, what kind of person am I, that genuine niceness is a new and uncomfortable experience?

I was lost in thought, contemplating my own shallowness, when the plane took off. The kid fell asleep, as he said he would, and we had no more conversation or interaction until the flight was over.

As we were disembarking, he looked at me gravely, with a hint of a smile on his face, and bade me farewell and a safe trip home. I returned the courtesy, and never saw him again.

I never got his name. Even in the love letter from his girlfriend he was “Bebe.” Still, he left his mark on me. I will endeavor henceforth to be more like him. Happiness is a choice and courtesy is contagious.

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