Generosity on the fly

Reflections on a random act of giving on the highway

October 26, 2011|Dan Rodricks

I was a victim of generosity on Saturday, the target of someone's random act of kindness, and I've had a weird reaction to the whole thing. I couldn't find anything for the condition at Rite Aid, so I thought I'd just write about it.

In fact, I'm required to do this, aren't I?

I mean, someone does something nice for you — no matter how small or contrived the deed — there's like a law that says you have to tell everyone about it.

You are required, as a member of the human race, to let others know that a wonderful thing has happened as a way of proving that all is not lost and that, within this big old world, there's still a beautiful brotherhood of man, yadda yadda yadda.

Over my years at The Sun, I have been on the receiving end of dozens of phone calls from people who were just amazed at the kindness of strangers: anonymous do-gooders who randomly fed parking meters at the Inner Harbor, or let an elderly woman move ahead in the checkout line at Safeway, or stopped to help fix a flat on a dark stretch of road in Baltimore County, or used a coat hanger to open the door of a car for the owner who'd locked her keys inside at Belvedere Square, or let a teacher in charge of field-tripping third-graders from Delaware use a cell phone (back in the day when not everyone had one) to report engine trouble on I-95 in Harford County.

There was a story a few years ago about an MTA bus driver who went the extra mile for a bewildered couple from Turkey he found carrying luggage and trying to locate a place to stay on Loch Raven Boulevard. (The driver didn't merely drop them off at a bus stop; he made sure they had accommodations for the night.)

It's not that I didn't appreciate these stories. Despite what you might think, newspaper reporters and editors like fuzzy feel-goods now and then, too.

But I used to wonder about the motivation of the men and women who phoned them in: Were they shocked and amazed at even small acts of kindness by strangers, the sort of deeds that once upon a time might have been considered downright ordinary — small-town, help-your-neighbor stuff? Have we become so busy and isolated from one another, spending too much time in cars or in front of computers and televisions, that we too seldom are in position to give or receive small favors?

Have there not been enough role models to show us what everyday generosity, civility and etiquette look like?

Maybe the people reporting these acts had become so depressed about the depletion of kindness and generosity in our time — so cynical about the world — that they just needed to ring some bells and herald humanity.

In my experience, the number of reported acts of kindness has diminished in recent years, and I'm not sure what to make of that. Maybe the novelty of "pay it forward" has worn off. Maybe the admonition to perform "random acts of kindness" has been smothered by culture wars, recession and partisan politics. Maybe we're all too busy using social media to be social.

So I was surprised to hear the toll-taker at the Perryville plaza on northbound I-95 Saturday tell me that a driver ahead of me had paid my $5 toll. I've heard of this sort of thing happening — at toll plazas and at a Starbucks drive-through — but I'd never been the beneficiary.

It made me smile. But to be honest, I felt a little weird. Someone who didn't know me (and didn't know whether I needed the help) had spotted me five bucks on the highway. They were — what? Living large, sharing fat, trying to affirm the basic goodness of man, fulfilling a religious obligation on the fly? The instinct is to see this as a nice thing to do, and, of course, I thank the anonymous donor. But next time, find someone who can use the money and stick it in their hand. That's what I intend to do with your five bucks from I-95.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of the Midday show on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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