On The Kindness of Strangers

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We're on the Kansas Turnpike, between Topeka and Wichita. We’re in the single-file march of a construction zone. Something really bad just happened.

A few miles ago, the cones walling off the left (and only) lane had started to describe a sloppy, erratic warble that, more than occasionally, make a drunken collapse into the path of traffic. Once, twice, three times we evaded them.

Finally, we did not.

We caught a cone by the hair of our exhaust, which stuck a bit too far out from the undercarriage for its own good.

Our faces drain, but the RV keeps going. We manage to get off the road, after what feels like a hundred miles, after the construction zone. Emergency blinkers on, we limp into the relief of the shade under an overpass.

One cursory glance under the vehicle reveals it: Stuff is missing. Stuff is hanging. Stuff is bleeding.

Shit.

The next exit is Emporia, Kansas. Its population is about half that of UCLA. It is known for not much. (That said: In 1953, it claims to have been the site of the first Veterans Day observance in the United States. That's definitely something.)

Still shocked into an uneasy silence, we chug clunkily into the Emporia exit’s closest truck stop and consider our options. When asked, the single service guy gives us the wish-I-could-help face and points us at an auto mechanic “downtown.”

The drive down towards the shop was bleak. Sure, we’re still running--but we’re leaking and making occasional, horrible noises--high-pitched metal yelps of pain. Is it over? Maybe it’s over.

I call the guy to let him know we’re on the way. Defeat stamps every word. We’ve already replaced the engine and the transmission in this thing to get this trip done. We can’t take another hit.

As we’re pulling up, the mechanic is already running out towards us like we’re old friends whose car he recognized from across the street. We conduct our introductions as he’s already on his back under the coach, rattling things around. He leaps up once or twice to get tools. Before we know it, he’s explaining what he did, gathering up his tools and wishing us well. He refuses repayment, but I take advantage of his hands being full of wrenches to stick some cash in his front pocket. It doesn’t feel adequate.

We drive away. We were screwed and, solely because of this nice man, now we are saved.

I’ve never been particularly good at accepting others’ generosity. I’m overwhelmed by a sense of imbalance when someone does something for me and I don’t see any immediate way to repay them.

This particular journey has been a yoga for that part of me that yearns to pay its debts immediately, in full. It has been a nonstop lineup of kindnesses, imparted almost entirely by theretofore strangers. We’ve been invited to dinners (a couple of which count among the most delicious I’ve ever gobbled down); to breakfasts; to baseball games; to the zoo; to parties on the lake. We’ve been welcomed in when the dropzone is usually shut, we’ve been rolled office-dispenser-sized bottles of water when we were thirsty; we’ve had cash collections taken up on our behalf; we’ve been plugged into power at every port; we've found little crafts and nice notes left on our RV steps; we’ve been brought frosty, delicious, local beer.

We’ve been shown just how goddamn nice people are, almost all the time. To say it’s humbling is an understatement. It’s downright arresting.

We are only moving forward on the kindness of strangers, and I’m working as hard as I can to pack more thanks into every stunned thank-you.

  This was our destiny--until it wasn't. (Scrap yard in rural Oklahoma.)

This was our destiny--until it wasn't. (Scrap yard in rural Oklahoma.)