No matter how old I am or what I’ve seen over a lifetime, the light of dawn and the radiance of sunset always gives me pause to appreciate its beauty.
A few weeks ago, my wife the artist and I drove into Manhattan for a lovely day to ourselves and a visit to the Fricke Museum. The featured exhibit was a series of stunning works by J.M.W. Turner, renowned for his 19th Century European city scapes and use of light. It was our second visit, allowing us more time to study his work and bask in the glow of scenes from another time. It was a gray day and the images filled us both with warmth and joy.
Later we took a walk to find a little cafe and stopped by the bookstore Shakespeare & Company to browse. Coffee, hot chocolate and a cookie or two there were a welcomed treat, and as Cheryl studies a few titles on the shelves, I stood to find a trash container for our now empty paper cups. The nearest one was by the front door.
Busy as the spot was, the receptacle was blocked by a frail, elderly and tiny woman with an uneasy expression on her face as she looked beyond the door. I excused myself as I went to dump the trash and she stepped aside apologetically. I smiled and our eyes met. She reached out and placed her hand gently on my arm.
“Excuse me, but my eyes just aren’t what they used to be. Would you mind terribly walking me to my apartment building? It’s just one block down and around the corner.”
I’m certainly no Boy Scout, but I’ve always prided myself on being a gentleman. I also flashed back to an encounter in my youth. In an instant, many things ran through my mind. I’m not the cynic: I see my coffee cup always half filled with light roast and light cream, not half empty. Still, was this a setup for a mugging in the big bad Apple? Was there an ulterior motive here? I pushed the thoughts aside, but not altogether.
“I’d be glad to,” I responded. “Excuse me for a moment though while I let my wife know.”
I found Cheryl near a magazine rack, told her of the request and as she looked at me quizzically, I told that if I wasn’t back in 15 minutes, to call the police. Returning to my new acquaintance, I motioned for the door and she took my arm tightly. We made our way down the block and around the corner, chatting amiably about the city and its fine museums. She said she was familiar with Turner’s work and his appreciation of light. I fought the urge to look over my shoulder.
She explained that she’d lived in Manhattan for many years and had worked in advertising for decades. She’d led a wonderful life, she mused, and growing old was just another unforgiving chapter. Holding my arm all the more close, she asked me about myself. I explained that I was a former journalist and now a writer. She said she thought my byline sounded familiar. A line of guff? She sounded sincere. We walked down a long block, turned the corner on Park Avenue and stopped mid-block before a renovated building with a heavy glass front entrance. A doorman positioned inside opened the door and smiled.
“I just wanted to thank you for going out of your way to walk me home,” she said, squeezing my arm one last time. “It was a pleasure and I hope to read your work again sometime soon. Remember, your kindness is appreciated in ways you’ll never know.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” I said and wished her well. I made my way back to the bookstore hoping that my wife hadn’t place a phone call.
There’s a scene in the opening of the live action film “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince, holding court, refuses to shelter a wayward krone from an approaching storm. She offers him a rose and is rebuffed. She transforms into an enticing “enchantress” and for his selfishness, condemns him and those in his circle to a life of despair. The moral, in part? Random acts of kindness can negate the beast found in all of us.
In that moment when I was hesitant to help the old woman, that encounter as a child I mentioned earlier burned bright in my mind.
In second or third grade, I’m not certain which, my elementary school class in Jersey went on a field trip to The Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It was a memorable trip and my first time at any museum, but what I remember all the more is our bus stopping afterwards somewhere in the city and all of us piling out for lunch.
The destination was a busy Jewish Deli, probably long gone now, a dollar bill in my pocket and the strange, wonderful, enticing aromas that filled the air. I recall that it was cafeteria style, and as we moved our trays along the gleaming chrome tray track, I chose something savory and paid at the register.
Looking about for a place to sit with my classmates, I felt the gentle touch of a hand on my arm. To my left stood a small, elderly Jewish fellow with bushy silver eyebrows and a smile. I don’t recall what he wore, but I remember his eyes were warm and imploring.
“Son,” he said, “can you please help me. My hands just aren’t what they used to be. Would you help me bring this tray over to that table?”
My thoughts turned to fear from the countless lectures I’d received from my parents and teachers: Never talk to strangers. If you’re approached by a stranger, run away and call for help. Never, ever, trust a stranger.
Still, his eyes were imploring, disarming and endearing. In some unexplainable way, I felt that I knew this frail old man whose hands trembled gripping his tray.
I put my own tray aside and picked up his: I think it held a pastrami sandwich complete with pickle, a cup of black coffee and a small glass of water. For a small eight-year-old, I recall that it seemingly weighed a ton. Balancing it with care, I walked it over to a round table that sat two. I don’t think I spilled a drop of his coffee.
Our eyes met again and I felt a warmth of connection. Once again, I felt his hand on my arm.
“Thank you, son, for your kindness,” he said, his glance rising to the ceiling.
“You’ve done a good turn and God knows it, too.”
Over the years, I’ve often thought of that encounter, thought that it may well have been a test in this journey of life. Once or twice I may even have imagined the the old fellow was something more than a man in need of a hand.
I’m no Bible scholar, but my wife reminded me the other day of a passage from Hebrews, Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” and “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
I couldn’t agree more.