I am standing on a corner in downtown San Diego with my phone at my ear, snapping at my Lyft driver, Jay, on the other end of the line: “Yes, I am on the corner of J and Sixth. Where are you?” Stanchions of brutalist apartment buildings loom above me as I blink back tears. A couple passes talking loudly about buying a “dub” for later. A few feet away, a cluster of girls climb into a white Prius, which I had thought had been mine. I had approached that Prius like a parched hiker who just found their lifesaving water source in the Sahara, because for reasons I can’t get into here, I needed to get the hell out of where I was. As I scan the streets for my white Prius, the white Prius, I move a little to my right to put a lamp pole between myself and the windows of the bar I had just left. I don’t want anyone to see me standing here. Worse: I don’t want them to see me cry. “Come on, come on, come on, where is he,” I think, pretending to look at my phone, my saving grace. The wind whips the tops of the palm trees back and forth in their November way. I chastise myself for coming here.
When my Lyft driver, Jay, finally pulls up to the curb, he is fifty-ish, Asian (he is), and wearing a red Polo shirt and Birkenstocks. He is as frustrated with me as I am with him. But before he can say too much about how I was standing on the wrong side of the street, water starts rolling down my cheeks, and Jay goes silent.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be,” he replies.
For awhile, Jay drives in silence. He passes lurid lights of gas stations, parking garages, and homeless people curled into themselves on the sidewalk. The air conditioning is turned on too high. I’m self-conscious, of course. I wish I wasn’t crying in a Lyft with this guy who reminds me of my Dad. But I had been trying so hard not to cry on the street, that I’m too relieved right now. I’m in sort of a private place to think about it too much. It occurs to me that this whole thing is ridiculous. I am ridiculous. I’d only had one beer. And eventually, I get it together. I start wiping my face with my hands like they’re windshield wipers. At this point, Jay speaks: he asks if I would like a Kleenex. And in one of those rare, serendipitous moments in life where it seems something really is looking out for you, he opens his glove compartment to reveal a box of Kleenex that are perfectly angled for me to take one. He always keeps a box in there for his son who has allergies, he explains.
“You can talk about it, if you want.” Jay says, his eyes on the road. “No pressure.”
I tell him.
“Can I be honest with you?” he says slowly, and I nod. “I am sort of relieved. I thought it was something a lot worse,” he says.
“No, it’s a big deal,” I maintain.
“Is it?” he asks with a lilt, cocking his head playfully.
By the time we get to my apartment, Jay and I have talked about a lot of things. My fears, his divorce, his son who is being bullied at school. I tell Jay I’ll understand if he gives me a one-star rating for crying in his car. But he just laughs, and tells me to go to bed. “Everything will be better in the morning, Natalie,” he says, with his deep voice. “Morning,” I think.
In the movie version of the musical Oklahoma, the opening scene is a guy riding a horse through a cornfield. He is singing: “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling that everything’s going my way.” Green stalks of corn surround the handsome movie star (who’s probably dead now) on all sides. His horse ambles slowly along and it’s obvious that this guy has no place to be. In that cornfield, nothing is complicated. Nothing is broken. It’s just this simple guy, singing this simple song, and he is singing it with pure, unadulterated joy. And why is he so happy, anyway? He’s in a cornfield on a horse. Not that great. But, there’s no reason in particular, and maybe that’s the point. He is that happy simply because he is alive to live another day. More than that, he seems to know that his life is a grand adventure. And a short one.
Jay waited until I made it inside my apartment before he waved and drove away. And even though I am confident I will never see Jay again, I think of his kindness, and of our conversation, more often than you would think. And while I don’t want, or expect, to ever cry in a Lyft again, something good came out of it.
So often, it seems, there are so many other things that are more important to us than connection is. Like getting the vacuum fixed, making dinner, cleaning up after dinner, getting more Instagram followers, etc.
I don’t start a conversation with a co-worker who is thoughtful enough to bring me her dresses that don’t fit her anymore, for instance, because I am too in my own head. I don’t call my grandma (who’s had her license taken away) and take her to a movie because I am “too busy.”
What if instead of acting like I am only here for myself, I acted as if I was here for and because of other people? And what if those small, seemingly mundane moments with my co-worker aren’t mundane at all, but really, the thing that matters most? What if I acted like the purpose of my life is to savor someone’s smile? To lend a helping hand? To offer words of kindness when someone needs them the most?
It’s a summer night here, which means I am killing flies in my apartment by spraying them relentlessly with Windex. So as it is with flies, with humans, I am a kindness/connection-work-in-progress. But I am becoming more and more keen to the idea that kindness isn’t a small thing. Kindness is a huge thing. And I think it makes a difference.
Art by Ana Yael