The Kindness of Strangers: I (in Two Parts)

Part One

On my way home from the Farmer’s Market with flower and tomato plants in my wire cart, and more plants in bags hanging off each of my shoulders, I met a woman who lives on our floor. We stopped to chat. “Those should grow well on your balcony.”

“I hope so. It’s hot there with the sun beating down. But, I’m hopeful.” As we were talking, I was trying to remember her name. I had met her in the elevator and once we had stopped to chat in the hall, but it just wasn’t coming to me.

“I still need soil. The florist wanted a lot to deliver it.”

“You can buy soil next door, at that little store between us and Gristedes.”

We talked a little more, and I gave up on remembering her name and began thinking how I could get the soil I needed without going inside the store. As you probably know, I haven’t been inside anywhere since the beginning of March.

I took my plants home and headed back down to the store. I walked along the display of cut flowers outside the store. Behind the floral display, just inside the front door was a room where a young man was cutting and tending the flowers. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and yelled in, asking if he had potting mix for sale. He held up a bag of mix and showed it to me.

“Yes, great, that’s exactly what I want. Could I pay you here?” I asked. I knew the cash register was further inside the store, but hoped he would come to my rescue.

The young man shook his head no and looked down at the flowers he was arranging.

“I could give you cash.” Pause. “Or credit card.”

This time he spoke. “No.”                               

I waited. “I just need four bags.”

Another shaking of his head.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood there, keeping my distance, and watching passers-by to see if I might spot someone I knew. Finally, I took a walk around the block, pushing my little wire cart. I felt safe enough outside, but reluctant to venture in. As I came by the store again, the young man looked up. My mask was stifling me. The sweat dripped down the back of my neck.

 “I could wait for you at the side door.’ I said when I caught his eye. “You could just carry the bags to the register and I could get them from there.” There was a door near the cash register, up the walkway between the buildings. Again, he shook his head, barely looking up.

“I know it’s not your fault. It’s your boss. I’ve met him.” I had met his boss and I didn’t like him at all, one of the reasons I rarely went into the store.  The manager never smiled; he skulked around. Once, I had asked him if, in the future, they might stock Karamel Sutra, my favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, since they had other Ben and Jerry’s flavors, and he just looked at me, said, “No,” and walked away. Also, they didn’t take food stamps and I held that as a sign of snobbery.  

My errand had taken nearly a half an hour by now, and I was ready to sit down, but I still didn’t have the potting soil. I decided to adopt my elderly-lady-needs-help persona, and stood at the edge of the sidewalk, looking for a likely stranger. It wasn’t easy, one man was talking on his phone, two young women were deeply engrossed in conversation, no one looked my way. Finally, I spotted a young man who looked approachable, “Could you spare a few minutes to help me? Might you go in the store for me?”

“How many items do you need?” He was already putting the things he was carrying down on the sidewalk.

“Just four bags of potting soil. They are right there inside the door.”

I guarded his golf clubs, a large tripod, and a huge canvas bag he was carrying and in moments he was back with my potting soil. 

But, when I got home and put the bags of soil into the planter on the balcony, I discovered I needed more soil. It had been very confusing at the Farmer’s Market, trying to keep six feet away from everyone and select plants that were ten feet inside a barrier meant to keep customers at a distance. I had purchased more plants than I had intended.

This time, I texted Murray, who lives a few blocks away, and he agreed to help me get the potting mix. We had met when he and his partner Lee had come to purchase a little table that we had advertised in the neighborhood online bulletin. They had moved into the neighborhood not too long before us. She was a retired nurse and about Rosemary’s age; Murray was a little younger, a self-employed computer consultant who rode his bike across the Brooklyn Bridge to work each day.

Over the past year, we had had dinner together, seen a play, and visited each other’s apartments. After the lockdown, we had had a virtual glass of wine together and they had offered their help if we needed anything picked up. Ordinarily, neither Rosemary nor I are much in the habit of asking for help, but the pandemic had made us rather dependent. Murray and Lee had helped us in numerous ways, picking up prescriptions and grocery items we couldn’t get in our on-line delivery and even dropping off gifts of wine and goodies. Murray had been out bike-riding when he came to my rescue, and in moments, he came out carrying the four bags.  

However, when I went to plant the next day, I realized that even this second set of bags was not enough. I needed at least four more. I just couldn’t ask Murray again. I was busy with other things and put the task out of my mind temporarily. A little later, on the way to the trash room on our floor, I ran into the woman who had originally told me where I could buy soil. She asked how the plants were doing. I told her about my need for more potting mix. She said she had one spare bag in her apartment and would let me have it.

“Thank you! My plants will appreciate that.” And then, as I turned away, “I’m sorry, but what’s your name again?” I asked.

“Cynthia,” she said and repeated mine to me.  

“Cynthia.” I echoed. “I should remember that. I used to have a good friend named Cynthia.”

From our balcony, the night before, Rosemary and I had been watching the protesters being bullied by police, and this reassurance that there were kind people in the world came at an opportune time.

Cynthia’s bag of potting soil allowed me to save a few of the plants, and I was grateful. But I needed still more. I went online and tried to find a nursery in Brooklyn that had a place I could purchase bags of soil outside. I studied the photographs of their stores, looking for clues. Nothing looked promising. In desperation, I turned to Amazon. The earliest Amazon delivery was a week away.

I had a virtual appointment with my rheumatologist. “What is your opinion about what it is not too risky for me to do?” I asked. “Can I go out?” She paused a long time. She isn’t one to take long pauses; she usually has an opinion at the ready. “I think you could take a walk outside if you go early in the morning, before people are out.” I kept to myself that I had already been out walking, been to the Farmer’s Market, masked and keeping my distance, but not early in the morning.

That night, I went to bed discouraged. In the morning, though, I woke up determined.  It was before seven. I wasn’t sure what time the store opened. I looked out the window. The sidewalk in front of the store looked empty. I would do it. I would go next door and buy a few more bags of dirt. I wouldn’t have to be inside too long. It couldn’t be that much riskier than going to the Farmer’s Market. Maybe that young florist wouldn’t even be there this early, and he wouldn’t see me, capitulating, going inside the store to pay.  

I put on my armor: gloves, mask, outdoor shoes, my wire cart. I said good-bye to Rosemary, as if I were a Crusader headed for Jerusalem. I opened the door. There, on the floor of the hallway were two bags of potting soil with a note from Cynthia, “I will bring potting mix on my next trip out.”

4 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers: I (in Two Parts)

Add yours

  1. Asking for ‘help’ gives people the opportunity to be king and generous, something that doesn’t happen that ofter


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