Random Kindness

by Nell Shanahan | 5/6/98 5:00am

A couple of years ago, my dad gave me a book about random acts of kindness. It contained numerous stories about people who, for no apparent reason, did good deeds for other human beings -- whether that involved helping a stranger in need or paying the toll cost for a couple of cars on the highway after they passed through the gate.

When I received the gift from my Dad, although thankful for the gesture, I soon dismissed the book as just another one of those "feel-good" concepts that he had found to include in another one of his numerous speeches. People have a hard enough time smiling hello and telling people they are loved, let alone going the extra mile for a stranger or for no obvious cause. Thus, before long, the book found its way to the little white bookshelf in my room. Not gone, but forgotten -- at least for the time being.

Six years later, as a junior in college, I find myself enveloped in articles, reviews and editorials that remark upon the continual violence and cruelty in this world. There is no question that we live in a world where traumas face people everyday. Kids are shooting kids. Parents are killing their children. Wars are being declared. Times like these question whether kindness itself, let alone "random" or "senseless" kindness, still exists.

Well, I believe it does -- not just because I believe we are all good at heart, but because I witnessed the most blatant act of "random" kindness this past weekend. After a pretty exhausting week of midterms and papers, I decided last Thursday that I would head home for the weekend for some much-needed rest and relaxation. My mom promised to do my laundry, and my brother promised to show me his most recent imitation of Kyle from "South Park." I couldn't resist. I borrowed a car from a friend, and by Friday afternoon, I was on 91 South heading home to Connecticut for my favorite stir-fry dinner.

Well, let's just say I didn't make it very far. After about an hour and a half, I looked down at the speedometer to find the "Check Engine" warning had lit up. A few seconds later, I could not accelerate. I pulled over to the side of the road, almost in tears, and stopped the car. Within seconds I started hyperventilating -- without a clue as to what to do next.

I soon decided to open the hood, assuming that that was the intelligent thing to do, but knowing full well that I wouldn't know what to look for. Luckily, for the car's sake, the hood would not open -- or at least I could not open it. So, there I was, standing outside of my friend's little white Neon on 91 South in a little blue tank top and Levi's as MACK trucks came barreling past at nearly 80 mph. I wanted to cry.

After stressing just a bit, I started waving my arms up and down hoping someone would notice my pathetic actions and be kind enough to stop. Within seconds, a little maroon car began to slow down, and I thought I had been saved -- at least for the time being. Well, if they had only known what they were getting into, I'm sure they would have kept driving. But they didn't, and for the next four hours, they would be waiting with me on the side of the road -- till nearly 10 p.m. that night when the AAA tow truck arrived. (We had called them twice from a gas station nearly 20 minutes away, and they neglected to come any earlier.)

By the time the tow truck came, I had planned on being home in front of the television with my sister, Kate, watching taped episodes of "Ally McBeal." But no, that never happened. Instead, I was being told that I would not be able to drive the car anywhere due to a possible blown head gasket -- whatever that is -- or faulty speedometer that was giving the engine wrong signals to turn off completely, as it did on the highway.

The two women/sisters who had been with me for the past five hours or so, then immediately offered to drive me as far as they were going in that direction -- the Holyoke Mall in Massachusetts -- which was about an hour from my home in Connecticut. I kindly and gratefully accepted, while apologizing profusely for such an inconvenience. I kept wondering why they were being so thoughtful and kind to someone they hardly knew. The older sister simply replied that she had a daughter about my age and hoped the favor would someday be returned. Regardless, they had gone way beyond the call of duty. I could only imagine what would have happened had they not been on Interstate 91. The simply annoying ulcer with which I was diagnosed last month would have certainly turned into a fatality. I am sure of it.

So, around midnight or so, I arrived at the Holyoke Mall, after having driven with the two sisters, Betty and Mary, for about two hours. They had been with me since 6:30 or so that evening. My mom stood beside the Pizzeria Uno, where we had planned to meet after I had called her from the gas station, and after giving me a hug, turned to the eldest sister, Betty, with a hug as well and a million "thank-you's" for taking care of her daughter.

I got in the car that night thanking the gods above that I was safe, that I hadn't been kidnapped by some lunatic or killed by some escaped convict. But beyond that, I was surprised and grateful that I had had the opportunity to meet two women who performed such a random act of kindness. I realized that perhaps there is more kindness today than we often assume. I wanted to write this column to reflect this realization and to also thank those two women who got me home, safe and sound, for Mom's home-cooked dinner. Perhaps I should take a second look at that book my dad gave me in high school, knowing now of the reality behind such a "feel-good" concept.