bits of civility

I spend all day answering phones, taking orders and solving problems for a mail-order company. There are, mixed in with the banal and the exasperating, some very nice exchanges to be had on these phones. This morning a woman called and said she was moving, though she didn’t know where to, and she wanted to stop her catalog subscription. I said something like, “Oh, dear, that sounds a little scary!” She agreed, and said I was the first person who had said anything like that. (I gathered that she had been placing similar phone calls to other catalogs and magazines.) We exchanged all the pertinent information to stop the catalog coming, and before we hung up, I said that I hoped that when she got back on her feet, we’d hear from her, and wished her good luck.

I have no idea what her circumstances or situation are, but from that brief exchange it sounded like a very uncertain change in life for her – escaping a bad relationship or a lost job and dire financial situation requiring a sudden move. She did say that she would not be ending up on the street, which was nice to hear. But only getting that tiny slice of this young woman’s life is a tiny bit unsettling – to think that she is out there, facing an uncertain immediate future, hopefully not too uncertain and hopefully not long-term. And being able to offer a tiny slice of kindness into her perhaps uncertain life was a nice opportunity for me.

I guess life is filled with those tiny moments where two lives intersect for seemingly random reasons. I was out on the street in Portland the other day, and had just crossed the street in my unsteady, wobbly gait, doing my best imitation of hurrying across, and was leaning up against a mailbox resting when a car pulled to the curb. The window slid down, and the woman driver asked if I needed a ride somewhere, obviously in response to my barely making it across the street. As the situation would have it, my car was about 20 feet away, so I thanked her profusely, and said I thought she was very kind, but that, no, I did not need a ride.

As she drove away, and as I thought more about it, I wondered what would have happened if I had said yes, had climbed into her car and, in essence, taken her for a ride – figuring out along the way how I would explain when we ended up exactly where she had picked me up. I wondered if this was a person I would like to get to know, a rare selfless and openly kind individual in a world that, lately, has seemed to me filled with people who do not automatically step aside when another person – handicapped or
not – comes toward them in the same travel lane, who do not automatically go out of their way to acknowledge the presence of other people. It seems that, as I navigate sidewalks with a cane, I notice that many people don’t step aside when I come toward them, leaving me to take an uncertain step around them. I don’t expect that my walking with a cane should entitle me to special treatment. But I step out of the way when someone approaches in the same lane, or heading into a narrow space. I hold the door for anyone coming behind me – man, woman, child, handicapped or Jack LaLaine.

Walking with a cane, finding it difficult to navigate certain parts of the sidewalk, unable to hurry across the street, wobbling and weaving, and needing to stop and hopefully sit frequently, I find myself much more aware of how few people behave toward others in that way. It seems like basic human civility to me. I’ve never been knocked down, not even close to it, but I have come close to falling a few times when I had to step out of another person’s way, having to step off a curb or onto an uneven sidewalk. I hope that, back when I walked like a “normal,” before I was a gimp, I was as aware of other people as I expect them to be of me. I hope that, if I had seen me stumble across the street and lean gasping on a mailbox, I would have had the basic human civility to stop and offer a ride.

In any case, it brightened my day, and whoever that woman was, I am very appreciative of her kindness.


Author: Stephen

Stephen Harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in Maine.

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