The Kindness of Strangers – Pam Zerba

There’s an unexpected advantage to old age. Strangers – especially young, male strangers – are nice to me!

I started to notice this a couple of years ago, whenever I had to have something repaired. The young men, who previously had been smug in their impenetrable knowledge, answer questions I haven’t even thought to ask, make exceptions, fix small things for free. The kid at Best Buy whispers the name of a small computer shop that had the part I needed, cheap. When the furnace was repaired, the two guys who fixed it demonstrate to me every single thing they did, like proud eighth graders showing off their science project.

It even extends to the New York subway. Young men offer me their seat, even when I’m not staring at them, trying to make them feel guilty. The first time it happened a young black man asked me if I wanted to sit down. Why, yes, I said. Thank you! As I started to sit and he began to stand, at the point when his mouth was level with my ear, he said, “That’ll be five bucks.” I guffawed and sat down. “I had to try,” he said, with a philosophical smile. We were comic relief for jaded New Yorkers.

And then there was the guy in the subway ticket booth. I bought my ticket from a machine. As I walked to the tracks, the booth guy rapped on the booth window and gestured me over. “You should have come to me,” he said firmly. “I could have saved you money. Senior discount!” “But I’m not 65,” I told him.
He gave me a skeptical look. “Do you have your Medicare card?” No, I assured him, I didn’t – because I’m not 65. What I loved was his assumption was that I wasn’t too vain to ask for a senior discount, but that I was too dumb to know how old I was.

The best example occurred on a cold, windy day in downtown York. I had my heavy coat on, but I hadn’t buttoned the top button, and my scarf hung loosely around my neck. As I stood waiting at a stoplight, wind blasting, I noticed a large man standing a few feet away. He had a rough look, a hard expression on his face, his mouth grim, unsmiling. The shine had worn off his varsity-type jacket, and it was none too clean; I didn’t think he had showered recently, either. No hat or gloves. Frankly, he looked like someone I might cross the street to avoid.

He walked over to me. “It’s so cold today,” he said disapprovingly. He reached over and pulled up my collar to cover my throat. He then picked up the ends of my scarf, and tied it tightly. “You need to take care of yourself.”

I was so stunned I forgot to mind his invasion of my space. I’m not sure I even said thank you. I hope I did. Maybe I reminded him of his grandmother. Or maybe the opportunity to help somebody else, to do a good deed for an old ladies, made him feel better about himself. I like to be independent, I don’t want to look like a helpless senior citizen. Sometimes the best thing you can do for another person is the hardest: letting them help you.


One thought on “The Kindness of Strangers – Pam Zerba

  1. I have seen this work both ways. Sometimes when I am unloading supplies at the office and making multiple trips in and out a stranger sometimes stops to ask if he can help. I am much more inclined,to accept the help now. I used to spontaneously say, “No thank you, I have it.”
    When shopping for an electronic, however, I encounter young sales people immersed in sales with younger people, but giving me short shrift. I usually walk out at that point, and take my business elsewhere.

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