October 21, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Blanche DuBuis: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

It's a line, both tragic and iconic, from A Streetcar Named Desire. Apart from being mandatory high school reading, Streetcar helped vault the career of Marlon Brando, and to broach topics previously untouchable in American theater. Blanche, an archetypal southern bell languidly clinging to her physical prime, is being taken to a mental hospital when she utters that signature line. It references her promiscuity and physical dependency, as well as her inability to form meaningful relationships grounded in real emotion. (The genesis of this downward spiral was discovering her then fiance's homosexuality. Again, not something discussed much in those years.)

Though there is specific context to that line, and an aura of shocked disillusionment, so too is there a more broad context. There is the fact that Blanche's name might as easily be replaced by any of ours, and the line would retain its veracity and impact. We all depend on the kindness of strangers, and conversely, are often the stranger on whom another is depending.

These are small actions, most of the time, unnoticed. But those instances in which they are apparent, they ought to be noted. Were it not for a stranger's Tylenol, my haggard finish of the Heartland 50 miler would have been more painful - if not impossible. And were it not for those who took minutes off of their time to stop and walk with me, to boost my spirits and encourage me on, dropping might have seemed an option. As it was, I couldn't fall short of the expectations they had set. They said I could finish, and so I would do so.

My job gives me a beautiful opportunity to be the stranger in question, providing extra change here or a sample scone there. Those are the obvious deeds, the tangible ones. There are things besides that, the jokes that hit or the drinks that satisfy a need beyond caffeine.

But more often, I marvel at the kindness of customers, so often cited for their transgressions. I'm as guilty as anyone, quipping and complaining about the minutia of a mispronounced order or the mention of Starbucks. But there are so many more moments - too many to do justice to - that strike the opposite note. There is the customer who will wipe up a mess they made - or even one they didn't. There is the customer who fills the half & half carafe himself, or the customer who asks you how much longer you're open at the sight of a broom. I depend on these things, and on the everyday kindness, the smiles and the thank yous.

So does everyone. We are social creatures, but more than that. A social creature has meaningful interaction with a select few, but we expand far beyond our circle. Some say this cheapens the relationships we form, as there are so many, or hardens us to others. No doubt, these things can and do happen. But were it not for the kindness of strangers - on which we all depend - it would be so much more the norm.

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