May 29, 2013

A Random Act of Kindness

E. C. Stilson, a Goodreads friend, is hosting a Random Acts of Kindness Blogfest this week. Due to my impressive lack of time management skills, I was too late with my RSVP to participate in the event. But I really like the idea, so this week I'm writing about a Random Act of Kindness that was done for me once upon a time when I was just a slip of a girl.
The author and her little red car

When I was sixteen, I was the proud possessor of a really lovely red VW Beetle convertible. When I say really lovely, I mean it was mine and it ran quite frequently. It was a great car with a unique smell, sort of like creosote or, as some thought, L'air Du Dead Body.

My best friend, Linda, and I spent the summer of 1966 cruising around Washington DC to the sounds the Beatles and the Stones.  But Motown was our favorite that year. We sang along with Kim Westin's Take Me in Your Arms and J.J. Jackson's It's All Right as we drove past the houses of various boys and ate at the Hot Shoppe's drive-in. They were great days. 

As all interesting people do, the Bug had a few little eccentricities. The passenger door didn't close completely, so people passing us were always waving, shouting, and pointing. This is not the Random Act of K. I am writing about, but it certainly was kind of all those people not to want my best friend to fall out of the car. She and I always smiled and waved in return and pointed out the rope that we had tied through the window and around the door frame to keep it closed.

And the convertible top was not user friendly in any way at all, so when it rained we usually just put up an umbrella.

The car kept running by some miracle and time moved on. By eighteen we were legal to drink beer and wine in Washington, so we did. We'd drive my little convertible to Georgetown, buy some incredibly cheap champagne and sit outside the Little Tavern (where we had gotten cups) and sip away. We'd sing Hey, Jude and think deep thoughts about how best to get the car to start again.

Cautionary note: If you are a passenger in a little red car and are holding a bottle of champagne, do not fiddle with the top. It might come off and ricochet around the interior hitting you in the head and the driver in the leg and making you both think you've been shot by passing motorcyclists.

In the fall Linda went to school and I went to work. I got my first real full time job at the Thomas H. Ryan Management Company located around 12th and New York Avenue downtown, a block from the Greyhound Bus terminal. I was a receptionist. I couldn't type and wasn't too hot at math, but I managed to answer the phones and write receipts for rents when tenants dropped them off. I excelled at being pleasant. This was entirely due to my mother who taught me to be polite at all times.

I often took the bus to work, but some days I would drive. The next summer a friend who also worked downtown was carpooling with me. He worked at an office building near Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street. I may be getting the exact location wrong - it was a long time ago - but you get the gist: a whole lot of rush hour traffic.

Now, my little car had one other interesting feature in addition to the aroma, the door, the convertible top, and by this point the iffy clutch and a reluctance to move in reverse. It had no gas gauge. Instead of a gauge those inventive little Germans added a really fun feature - an emergency gas tank. It had a lever on the floor just in front of the gear shift. Whenever I felt the car coughing to a stop when I wasn't putting on the brake, I just flipped the switch and was good to go for another ten miles or so.

Now being one of a daring few who find it a challenge to wait until I can smell the fumes before I think about putting gas into my car, I used this feature fairly often. Problems arose, however, when helpful passengers would flip the switch for me and I would forget that I needed to get gas. Which brings us to a Random Act of Kindness. I think you can probably guess what's coming.

Yes, one afternoon at about 5:30 my car came to a complete stop in the middle of the intersection at 18th and Connecticut. I remember freaking out when I went to turn on the emergency tank and found that someone else already had. I started laughing somewhat hysterically as cars began honking and traffic backed up. Then, of course, I burst into tears. I had no idea what to do. 

Suddenly a nicely dressed businessman appeared at my window and asked what was wrong. I told him. I must have looked so pitiful he didn't even bother to tell me what an idiot I was. I think he must have had a daughter of his own. At any rate, he just smiled and told me to calm down. If I could just steer my old pitiful excuse for a car, he would push it with his really nice new one. I assumed he was just going to push me out of the way as a R. Act of K. to all the poor saps who were stuck behind me. But this total stranger with his really nice car actually pushed me for three blocks until we found a gas station. Then he waved and went on his merry way.

Of course, the little red car is no more. I now drive a super safe Camry with about fifty air bags and a dinger that lets you know if your door's ajar. It has no smell. The Little Tavern is gone, but Linda is still my best friend. And I still remember a really, really nice stranger who took pity on a rather goofy girl when he didn't have to and committed a much appreciated Random Act of Kindness.


  1. I remember those songs.

    We played them in the R&B band I was in, along with a bunch more: James Brown, Wilson Pickett...and Otis, of course.

    Actually had Arthur Connelly in my basement once during band rehearsal.

    He was a friend of our alto player’s and it was before Sweet Soul Music came out.

    He didn’t let on.

    Boy, were we impressed when it hit the charts.

    Those were the days, eh?

    Now you have me reminiscing.

    Well done!

  2. We could use more people like that in our lives. Very nice story!

  3. ah, the days of the screwdriver to start my HONDA, and then making sure to park on a hill to get a 'rolling' start. Or the days of hitting the alternator and the battery, at the same time, to get that stubborn thing to start.
    The joys of my first car...thanks for letting me walk down memory lane with you.

  4. You take me back to my days as a sometime-protester and intern in DC (mighty hot and humid in the summer). On the way home from the March on the Pentagon, my new-to-me second-hand VW bug sputtered and died on the highway. It took a while before a kind person pointed out the "lever."

  5. Penny, you have the rare gift of making bad times sound like good times - or maybe the gift is to remember the good parts and forget the bad. Either way, a nice uplifting post that put a smile on all our faces, much as your writing does.