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Kindness of Strangers


It has been months now and I have to admit it: I probably was scammed.

I have been hoping, almost expecting, that a letter with $45 cash and a heart felt thank you would come from the stranded British chef whom we helped one night on a New York City street. His story of theft of his wallet and suitcase was so convincing and his dilemma of being penniless in New York at night was such a pickle it would make any fellow traveler empathetic.

When I gave him the money and my business card to help him get to friends in Philadelphia by train, he promised he’d repay me. For a long time I expected that letter to come.

Wouldn’t you, too? Here is what happened:

It was a hot July night this past summer and my 15-year-old daughter and I were walking back to the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th.  ( A cheap place to stay in NYC at a handy locale. )

We’d been in the Big Apple five days, bonding as mother and daughter, seeing the sites, taking in Broadway shows, going to museums and window shopping. We were leaving early the next morning. We’d had a fabulous time.

We were waiting for the light to change at 3rd Avenue and 50th, talking about the revival of A Chorus Line we had just seen. I liked it, as I had when I first saw it 25 years ago; Maddy thought it was lame and dated.

Suddenly right in front of us a bicyclist in a t-shirt – with no lights or helmet on the dark night -- came roaring up 3rd Avenue. He was a dark blur of speed, but two other cyclists were crossing 50th right in front of him. They were dressed in blazing white with three or four white plastic bags of groceries hanging from their handle bars.

The collision of bicycles happened so fast that Maddy and I had couldn’t tell whose fault it was, but the result was a crazy mess of tumbling bodies, tangled bikes with bent wheels, spilled cans and scattered produce -- and then a loud fracas of accusations.

The t-shirt man was yelling obscenities about stupid foreigners. The cyclists in white were yelling back and trying to pick up their groceries. The T-shirt man looked like he was going to beat the crap out of them. He picked up his broken bike pedal and hurled it at their heads. They ducked. The pedal scuttled across the asphalt and landed right at our feet at the curbside. The three started to tussle and push.

“Hey, hey! Stop it!!,” I yelled, horrified to see such violence break out in the middle of the street only a few meters before us. Maddy grabbed my arm: “Don’t get involved Mom!”

Other pedestrians near us watched the disturbing melee. One said out loud, in a British accent, so that all could hear: “I hate New York. Don’t you hate New York? Violence and rage always just below the surface. I just want to get out of here.”

I turned to look at him. He was late 30s, clean, tidy and bearded with a yarmulke on his head. He was wearing a green t-shirt with the name of a Jewish religious charity across the chest and carrying a small Starbucks bag with a thick book in it. He engaged our eye and shook his head as if dismayed and despairing at the violent scene -- precisely what I was feeling.

As the bicyclists limped off – the white clad duo with bloody knees dragging their now mangled un-rideable bikes while the green t-shirt man rode off with only one pedal cursing loudly – we began to talk.

“I have been walking the streets for five hours and I just want to get home. You will never believe what happened to me today.”

His appearance, manner, and accent made him seem honest and truly distressed. We had to ask: “What happened?

He told us his story of a horrible day in New York. His name was Ari and he was a chef in Britain – he gave us the name of the restaurant. He was visiting the US, volunteering with an orthodox Jewish religious group based in Philadelphia for a month. He had come into the city for the morning to read passages of the Torah to a member sick in hospital with cancer but in the afternoon, as he was getting out of the cab at Penn Station to head back to Philadelphia, the cab had driven off, taking all of his possessions, including his wallet and passport. All he had was his Starbucks bag and his science fiction book – which he showed us. He’d spent four hours at the police station to report the robbery , but they wouldn’t give him any money or help him get home and by the time he had left the police station the British Consulate was closed. He had to walk the streets until they opened the next morning at 8 am. He’d been asking people for help, but no one would help him.

Was he conning us? From our daily wanderings Maddy and I knew the British Consulate was just a block up the street. His story was so elaborate, but something about him made it seem real.

“How much do you need?” I said, unprompted. His face lit up in astonishment and gratitude.

“I can’t believe t. You would do that? You would help me out?

“Well, within limits... how much is the train ticket?”

“Forty five dollars... that would be fantastic, that way I could get out tonight.”

I gave him $45. He was effusive in his thanks. He went on and on about how kind Canadians were -- “Never met a Canadian who wasn’t kind and trusting... New Yorkers are so suspicious of everybody—They think everyone is conning them!”

“Well,” I said still harboring some doubts. “You may in fact be conning me, but if it is a con, it is a good one.”

“NO, no! Listen, I tell you, I’m for real. Give me your business card and I will send you the money, I promise. You’ve been so kind, I can’t believe it. I’ll pay you back.”

I gave him my card. We shook hands, exchanged final pleasantries. He was heading to Penn station right away, he said. He could get the midnight train. He again thanked us profusely. And Maddy and I left the encounter feeling decidedly good – as if we had truly helped a traveler in distress.

But as we got closer to the Y my mind was going over his elaborate story line and some of its implausibilities.

“What do you think Maddy? Was it a scam?”

“Well, he didn’t ask you for money, you offered it! And there is no way he could stage that bicycle accident...I think he was real.”

“If not he was a really good actor – we paid for street theatre.”

“Yeah, better and cheaper than some Broadway shows,” said Maddy.

If anything, we had a story to tell and over the course of the next few weeks we told it to family and friends. Most felt that even if it wasn’t real, I did the right thing. But not all.

“I can’t believe you fell for that!” said my L.A.-based cousin, who rolled his eyes at my gullibility.

But I am not embarrassed about being gullible. In fact, I am proud of it. It means I am trusting and empathetic –qualities that I want in friends and family – and qualities that we are all lucky to meet in fellow travelers.

In fact, as I told my story, many told me of kind strangers who had helped them out of a jam – my sister rescued by a kind couple in the south of France who gave her a meal and a place to stay for the night; a girlfriend who, en route from Europe, became sick with the flu in the Halifax airport and was nursed at a couple’s home for two days until she was well enough to continue flying home. “If they are reading this, tell them Katherine from Kitchener has felt terrible for 22 years because I lost their address and never thanked them!”

I, too have been helped. I was crying in the Wurzberg Germany train station one night in the winter of 1982 when all the youth hostels were closed and I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. “You are in trouble. Can I help you?” said a young woman. I spent a wonderful night in her university dormitory, sharing tea, cookies and stories with her and all her colleagues. Since that time I have always tried to help travelers in need.

So I don’t feel bad about giving “Ari” $45 on the streets of New York. I had the money to give. And I would probably do it again. Rather, it is the clever con men who exploit the kindness of strangers who should feel bad – but of course, being sociopaths, they never will.

I am not naive, nor some untravelled Canadian hick. I know there are plenty of con-artists out there. But I have made a conscious choice: I will not live my life nor travel the world as a distrustful cynic believing others with a hard luck story are out to scam me.

And I’ve decided: Ari must have lost my business card.


Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 at 04:41PM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

This minds me of the story about St. Thomas Aquinas who supoosedly when told that one of the other monks was flying in the monastarey garden, ran to the window to look. Naturally, the other monks laughed themselves silly at the gullibility of the great philospoher. St. Thomas' retort "better to believe that a monk could fly than a brother would lie."
January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Janes

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