I had lunch a couple of days ago with an old friend, and I noticed how she brightened the faces of everyone we met. A kind word here, a friendly observation there, it was an afternoon of cheerful encounters. How easy it is, when we are in the right frame of mind, to smooth the path for our fellow humans.
From holding open a door to holding the elevator, from a smile to showing a bit of patience when someone isn't moving at the lightning speed we'd wish, from the little things to the big things.
I was 22 and at the wheel of my 1962 VW Beetle in San Francisco, driving down an empty four-lane Divisadero Street after midnight. The central street islands and lamp posts whipped past. I had a couple of buddies in the car and the three of us had just finished our shifts at a trendy restaurant. We were laughing at some line of jokey conversation that had escalated into absurdity and we had tears in our eyes. I glanced at Brian in the seat next to me, all smiles, and in the rearview at Jimmy for an echo of the amusement.
But Jimmy, there just a second earlier, had disappeared. Poof! Then I looked at Brian, and his face was a mask of terror, his mouth a round, silent O. And I looked ahead and we were headed straight for one of those concrete lamp posts, except it wasn't off to one side anymore. The driver's side of the VW had slipped its way up on to one of the central dividers and the post was dead center and only a few feet away.
Suddenly, Brian reached across and grabbed the steering wheel. He jerked it hard to the right, the wheels popped back on to the road, the lamp post flicked past the window, and all was well. Jimmy reemerged from behind the seats, where he had taken cover, disbelief at our survival in his gawping expression.
You might say Brian saved my life, as well as Jimmy's and his own. Hilarity was replaced by relief. No one had felt the car sly its way up the curb, there hadn't been a bump, and no, we hadn't been drinking. Just youthful enthusiasm and lack of attention. But what I was completely unprepared for was Brian's joy. Joy isn't strong enough a word. Elation. Ecstasy.
"I did it! This time I did it! I was in the right seat and I did it!" And now he was really crying.
As it turned out, Brian had been in a major car accident two years earlier. In a vintage VW Beetle. With two friends, one at the wheel. That time, Brian had been in the back seat, where Jimmy now sat. The car had, unnoticed by anyone, jumped a curb and headed straight for a lamppost, and Brian had reached for the steering wheel.
Except he hadn't been able to grasp it in time because he was in the back seat. The two people in the front, both friends, had died. Only Brian survived the wreck-- with broken bones and a legacy of guilt and nightmares.
My inattention had given him a second chance, and this time, he was in the right seat and he knew what to do. He said he felt liberated, and actually thanked me. Not as much as I thanked him, though. (John found the entire episode neither liberating nor amusing and never accepted a ride home from me again.)
I was reminded of this long-ago good deed when I was out at Half Moon Bay beach, my first time there in many years. I was taking pictures, taking air, taking it all in, when I found some keys on a picnic table. I'd been walking around a bit, and I'd noticed one young guy, T-shirt and Warriors cap, eating take-out fifty feet away. So I took the keys over to him and asked whether he'd noticed who had been sitting at the table with the keys--and he had. He thought it might be a family a hundred yards off, down near the shoreline.
As if they'd heard our discussion from that distance, a woman in the family suddenly jumped up and started searching her purse, their blankets, the picnic cooler. Then she started running towards us at a sprint. Well, that was easy, I said to my partner in key finding. We tossed the keys down the small bluff in her direction and she thanked us profusely.
"That was really nice of you to pick up those keys." The guy acted like he'd had no part in our little good deed.
"Lucky you noticed the family; it was a mutual effort. And losing your keys is the perfect way to ruin a good day."
"You just made their's, that's for sure."
"As did you." As if this small effort had been something extraordinary.
Okay, it wasn't life-saving, but it was day-saving, and sometimes that can be pretty good, too. Those little gestures that change the course of a moment, and maybe a life.
Not long after Brian had saved me from certain death, I was about to leave the Bay Area. I was moving to Japan, and had been tying up loose ends all over the City. Errands, good-byes, dropping off borrowed books, and so on, in completely random neighborhoods. A couple of days prior to departure, I was sitting in Café Trieste in North Beach, enjoying a quiet moment alone. I noticed a woman approaching me, well-dressed in skirt and heels, a dreamy expression on her face. She looked like she knew me, but I was certain I didn't know her. She stopped in front of my table and smiled.
"You must be my guardian angel." She put a hand on the table, as if steadying herself.
"I've seen you three times in the last week, in different parts of the city. All over the city. At the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Marina. The Cliff House."
It was true, I'd been in all those places over the previous week. I nodded, not sure where she was going with this.
"So, in the past week, my life has turned around. I'd see you, and something good happened. Every single time. And I don't know you."
I wasn't sure what to do. What's the protocol when a stranger declares you to be their guardian angel?
"I guess you've had a lucky week?"
"Better than lucky. I don't know how to thank you enough. And I don't want to bother you. But I'd like to buy your cup of coffee."
My coffee was already paid for and I told her she didn't have to thank me for anything. She smiled and patted my shoulder, and said good-bye. A few minutes later, a fresh cup of coffee and a piece of cake arrived at my table, and the woman was gone. I never found out what she thought I'd done. It didn't matter. She had made my day.
I wish I could say I'm a big believer in karma. But in my experience, for better or worse, not many people really get what they deserve.
Doing good, though--that I believe in, however major or minor the opportunity. And not just because it's usually just as easy as doing nothing at all. Sometimes it just feels good. Sometimes it's a life-saver.