The Kindness of Strangers

I woke up on the morning of April 18th after having had a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles from the Bay Area, flying into and out of Burbank in one day. Was I nuts? I'm struggling with a heart condition, borderline diabetes and the last thing I should be doing is stressing myself out with the annoyance of airports, rental cars and grumpy people on an 80 degree afternoon in April. But I'm a Leo so loyalty is all. And my good friend and colleague was having one of her fine playwriting pieces performed at the Stella Adler Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. I promised I would go. The show was terrific, filled with pain and humor. In short, real. And I got to hang with new and old friends, applaud my buddy's funny, incisive piece and witness the passion of an African American theatre company exploring why Black lives really do matter. All good.

Except the trip had taken its toll and the next day, I was a wreck. I had tightness in my chest, kept popping baby aspirins to make sure I didn't have a stroke and then ended up with indigestion and weakness. At 2 PM I remembered suddenly I had a 3 PM appointment with an endocrinologist to get the results of important blood tests. I was still in my PJ's, old make up caked on my face, hair matted, with no time for a much needed shower if I hoped to make it by 3 PM.

I scrubbed my face with a facecloth, grabbed my little black backpack that was surprisingly light, jumped in my red Prius, and speeded like a lunatic down the street as city workers digging a trench cursed me for nearly hitting them. Did I mention that the endocrinologist charges 500 dollars for a missed appointment? Confident I could make it in time, I managed to get lost once I turned on Ashby Avenue because my mind was back in my home office messing around on Facebook. It was about 2:45 so I decided to regroup, trying desperately to remember where the hell Colby Street was in Berkeley. And then it hit me: it was the one going in the other direction, a mile back. I did a U Turn (illegally? who knows?) and finally reached Colby, turned right and ended up staring at the only parking lot in the complex and a big red and white sign: FULL.

Okay. Think. I knew there was no readily available street parking so I decided I'd just wait there until someone exited and then there'd be a space. Logical, right? It was now 2:55. At exactly 3 PM (according to my I Fit), someone drove through to pay their parking fee and I waved at the woman in the booth who ignored me. I jumped out of the car and pleaded with her to let me in. She stared right through me and mumbled, "Fine. And good luck". The gate rose, I zoomed up the ramp. And up... and up and up (no spaces) until I reached the top level where there were still no spaces anywhere. It was now 3:06. I spotted a sign: concierge parking only. I jumped from my car and hollered to the parking attendant, "Here! Me!" He sauntered over (how dare he!) and said, "Sorry, lady. No spaces." I begged him, telling him I had 5 minutes to get to the doctor's office or it would cost me 500 dollars for a missed appointment. I was crying. (That always works but I added "heart condition" for insurance). He took my keys, handed me a ticket, as I grabbed my surprisingly light weight backpack...hmmm.. and ran like the wind to... the wrong building.

It was now 3:10. I was so screwed, I could have been a cork in a bottle of Chardonnay. As I'm running to the right building, it suddenly occurred to me that my backpack was light because it had NOTHING in it! Dear god I had forgot to switch the contents from my traveling on airplanes backpack to my going to the doctor's backpack. I had no money, no license, no health care card, no proof of identity, no PHONE and I was pretty certain my Chase account was now 500 bucks lighter. But worst of all I had no way to pay for parking and no way to call anyone. This moment of realization that I was now a bag person on the streets of Berkeley with a lot of other bag people was a huge wake up call. Would I have to beg? Would I have to say, "I have no bus fare? Can you help me out?" What I thought was: I will deal with this later. In that moment of recognition that the universe is not arranged according to the needs of me, panic left me. I told myself it would be okay. I waited for my appointment. Thirty five minutes passed. I told myself that the doctor could not possibly charge me five hundred dollars now and that the receptionist would only charge me an extra fifteen bucks because I could not pay my co payment in cash or credit card. I could live with all that. And I was pretty certain that someone in the waiting room would lend me a couple of bucks to get my car out of parking , right? So I swallowed my pride and asked. "Sorry, that's just inappropriate." "Not much I can do." " Oh that's funny." "Poor you. Better be more careful next time." Shit.

After the very unsatisfactory and inconclusive results of the blood tests, I left the smarmy Dr. "Wish I could help but all I have is American Express" office vowing to switch over once and for all to Kaiser where they had compassionate doctors and a more efficient system and walked back to the parking garage one hour and fifteen minutes later. Which meant I would need at least 5 bucks and some change to get my car and drive home. Hmmm. What exactly was I going to do? Walk 12 miles home in the heat and call Lyft? I stood at the entrance of the parking garage, frozen in indecision.

And then I heard it. Jingling.. coming from ...wait...was the sound coming from my backpack? Yes! I reached inside and found a little red velvet bag of quarters. The bag of quarters I was supposed to bring with me to Los Angeles but had accidentally left home (okay, I'm a senior...I forget a lot of stuff) in my "going to the doctor's" backpack. Salvation! Relief! But how much exactly was in this little red bag? Was there enough? I sat on the curb and counted, like a greedy addict hoping to buy a cheap bottle of gin. Fifty cents, a dollar, a dollar fifty. I was short by about three bucks. Would the tears and heart condition excuse work again?

I approached the woman at the booth. She slid open the window and said, in her beautiful Haitian lilt, "What do you want, crazy lady?" And I proceeded to tell her my story. Her reaction was nonplussed. She looked at me and I could hear her thoughts. "You Americans. All spoiled irresponsible children. You know what a revolution is like? No water, no food. Living in a dirty hut?" At least that's what my guilty liberal East Bay mind was imagining as I stared at the pavement. But given I had no other choice, I offered the red velvet bag to her. She looked at me and laughed. "Give me your ticket. Go get your car".

I drove up to her window 10 minutes later, waiting as she helped another driver and then it was my turn. She said to me with a smirk, shaking her head, "Go. Oh and here. You have change," and handed me back the red velvet bag. Change? Had I counted wrong? I thanked her profusely and proceeded to drive home very carefully, looking out for police cars until I had made my way back to safety and my credit cards, thinking how easily we all could be slipping into destitution with only equally destitute friends, family and neighbors to rely on. Who had said: I have always relied on the kindness of strangers? Another crazy middle aged white lady named Blanche.

When I was inside the safety and security of my cozy cottage, I opened the red velvet bag to count my change. I didn't see anything at all. At least not at first and then I spotted it. At the very bottom was a shiny new penny that I'm pretty certain had not been there before. And it hit me that maybe having enough money in my backpack, enough money in my bank account and enough money in a 401 K was really not as important as they tell us. Maybe knowing there were folks out there like the parking garage lady who'd seen a lot more hardship than I ever will and were willing to lend a hand to anyone in trouble was the real security in America. And maybe you have to lose everything and be reduced to begging before you can see the kindness of strangers so you can find it in yourself. I'm pretty sure the next time someone approaches me on the street asking for bus fare, I won't turn away. With that realization I was completely at peace, knowing that there are still generous and kind souls in this world and now just maybe I had become one of them. We'll see.