And the strangeness of some kinds of people.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
The other afternoon I was making a pleasant run to the garden center during early rush hour when I saw something I’ve never seen on a busy North Carolina street.
While waiting for the light to change at one of the busiest intersections in the city, a woman next to me in a large, luxury SUV began edging out into the heavy stream of traffic crossing in front of us.
At first, I thought she might simply be unaware of her dangerous drift into moving traffic. She was, after all, visibly chatting on her phone and apparently oblivious to blaring horns of those who were forced to stop to avoid a collision. Within moments, however, traffic in both directions had halted. One man was actually yelling at her out his window, shaking a fist.
But on she merrily went, indifferent to the automotive mayhem left in her wake, the first red light I’ve ever seen run in slow motion. For an instant, I wondered if I might have somehow been teleported to Italy or France, where motorists seem to regard traffic lights and road signs as simple nuisances, a quaint if daunting European tradition of civil indifference to les autorités that evolved across the ages.
Having motored across all of Britain and most of France, Italy and Greece, I long ago concluded that driving there is both a blood sport and national pastime, an automotive funhouse to be both enjoyed and feared. When in Italy, for instance, my operational motto is: Drive like the teenage Romeo with the pretty girl on the back of his Vespa who just cut you off in the roundabout with a rude gesture insulting your heritage. It’s all part of the cultural exchange.
But here in America, at least in theory, most of us grew up respecting traffic laws because we were force-fed driver’s education since early teen years, programs designed to make us thoughtful citizens of the public roadways. (Quick aside: I have a dear friend whose teenage son has failed his driver’s license test — God bless his heart — for the fifth time, which must be some kind of statewide record; I’ve helpfully suggested she immediately ship him off to Sorrento, Italy, where he’s bound to find true and lasting happiness, a pretty girl, a nice Vespa scooter and no annoying driver’s test to complicate his life, rude gestures optional.)
All fooling aside, in cities across America, officials report that traffic accidents and automobile fatalities are approaching record levels. Some blame the pandemic that has had the world so bottled up and locked down, presumably entitling folks behind the wheel to make up for lost time by driving like there’s no tomorrow — or at least no traffic laws.
In my town and possibly yours, is it my imagination or do more folks than ever seem to be blithely running stop signs, ignoring speed limits and driving like Mad Max on Tuscan holiday? Running a red light in slow motion may be the least of our problems.
The armchair sociologist in me naturally wonders if America’s deteriorating driving habits and growing automotive brinksmanship might simply be a symptom of the times, part of a general decline of public civility and respect for others that fuels everything from our toxic politics to the plague of violence against those from other cultures.
Whatever is fueling the road rage and social mayhem, the remedy is profound, timeless and maddeningly elusive. I saw the fix written on a sign my neighbor planted in her yard the other day.
Spread Happiness, it said.
I found myself thinking about my old man, an adman with a poet’s heart who believed kindness is the greatest of human virtues, a sign of a truly civilized mind. My nickname for him was Opti the Mystic because he believed even the smallest acts of kindness — especially to strangers — are seeds from which everything good in life grows. “If you are nothing else in life,” he used to advise my older brother and me, “being kind will take you to wonderful places.”
This from a fellow who’d been in the middle of a world war and experienced firsthand the worst things human beings can do to each other. He became the kindest man I’ve ever known.
In any case, Opti would have loved how a timely reminder of his message came home to me during another challenging automotive moment. On a recent Saturday morning, after setting up my baker wife’s tent at the weekend farmers market where she sells her sinfully delicious cakes and such, I set off in my vintage Buick Roadmaster wagon to a landscape nursery on the edge of town to buy hydrangeas for my Asian garden.
On the drive home, however, I blew a front tire and barely made it off the highway into a gas station before the tire went completely flat. I had no spare. To make matters worse, my cell phone had only one percent of a charge left — just long enough to leave a quick, desperate voicemail on my wife’s answering service before the dang thing went dead. The old Buick, of course, had no charger.
I walked into the service shop whispering dark oaths under my breath at such miserable timing, asking the personable young clerk if she could possibly give my phone a brief charge. I even offered to pay her for the help.
Her supervisor emerged from the office. When I explained that I was running errands for my wife when my day suddenly went flat, she gave me a big grin. “Bless your heart, child! Give me that phone!”
I handed it over. She shook her head and laughed. “You’re just like my husband. I can’t let that man go anywhere without him gettin’ into trouble! That’s husbands for you!”
Just like that, my good mood returned. Outside, a few minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver was a big burly guy named Danny Poindexter. He was having a long morning too. We dropped off my car at the auto service center and he graciously offered to drive me home to get my other car. It was the second surprising act of kindness from a stranger that morning. As we approached my street, I saw my neighbor’s pink Spread Happiness sign for the second time.
“What kind of cake do you like?” I asked Danny.
“Carrot cake,” Danny replied. “I love carrot cake.”
He dropped me off at home, and I drove over to the farmers market and picked up a piece of my wife’s amazing carrot cake, phoned Danny and met him at a Wendy’s parking lot near his next job. He was deeply touched by the gesture. “This just makes my day,” he said, diving straight in.
I then drove back to the service station across town to pick up my phone — now fully charged — that I’d managed to forget in all the unexpected mayhem of the morning. I even offered to pay the ladies for their kindness to a stranger.
They simply laughed. “Oh, honey, that’s why we’re here!” the manager said. “I’m just glad you remembered to come back for your phone, so I didn’t have to chase your butt all over town!”
I drove home to plant my new hydrangeas in a happy state of mind, making a mental note to take the kind ladies at the gas station my wife’s famous Southern-style caramel cake just to say thanks to strangers who are now friends. SP
Jim Dodson is a New York Times bestselling author in Greensboro.