Supercharged gusts of wind blew sheets of newspaper around as though they were kites, rattled store windows, and made Madison Avenue feel more like winter in the Yukon than New York City. I thought I'd dressed for it, but I was a couple layers too thin.
Waiting at the corner for the green "walk" signal, I looked out from my hunched shoulders and noticed a woman wearing a faded head scarf tied under thick cheeks and a coat that looked barely warm enough for Guatemala or wherever she had previously called home; certainly not for here. Not on this windy winter day. There were two small children with her, one at either hand.
She peered down the stark street, then in the opposite direction, and finally up at the street sign.
Clearly, she was lost.
Then another woman, much taller by comparison and wearing chic high boots and a long coat with a hood, stopped next to her at the curb.
Abruptly, the lost woman held up a crumpled scrap of paper for the second woman to read, and I felt an unidentifiable pang, instinctively knowing that she would be ignored as just another street person.
The taller woman pulled back the hood of her coat and looked sharply at her. She was a glamorous 50-something blonde who obviously was from a long and proper New York lineage. And, I decided, her stereotype probably included an undergraduate degree from Vassar and at least one advanced degree from Harvard or, more likely, Columbia University.
Here was a woman, I thought, who would not hesitate to ignore Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and Gore Vidal, individually or collectively.
But she didn't ignore the lost woman or the scrap of paper she was holding.
Instead, she looked at it, studied it, and thought for a moment. She held out a leather-gloved hand and pointed toward Fifth Avenue, and made a downtownward motion holding up two fingers, probably indicating two blocks in that direction. Then she smiled at the woman and, although the noise of the traffic and the wind made it inaudible to me, said, "Got it?"
The lost woman smiled and crossed with the green light in the direction she'd been told.
Another day, I was late for a meeting and jumped in a cab. After traveling a block or so, I noticed that the driver's ID photo was of a heavily bearded man with the name Muhammad al Something-or-Other. I imagined I recognized him from a photo in The New York Times holding an AK-47 – or from a grainy reproduction of an airport-security camera.
Neither he nor I spoke. A mosque between prayers couldn't have been more silent.
When we were within two blocks of the destination, traffic stopped us. Muhammad reached over, turned off the cab's meter, and said, "If you got out and walked, you'd make it faster than I could deliver you, so the rest of the ride's on the house."
I sat back in the seat, relaxed, and decided to ride it out with Muhammad. We talked about the weather, his Boeing stock, and a tragedy called the New York Giants. Abandoning my concern for punctuality, I enjoyed the rest of the cab ride and was soon at my destination – right on time.
Weeks later, it was 2 a.m., raining like the classic monsoons in India, and I was in the garage under the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel waiting for my car, eager to flee the city and get home.
Although I'd successfully navigated in from the suburbs, Manhattan's tangle of one-way streets and general dissymmetry made going back to Westchester County a whole new ballgame.
The garage was deserted. There were no liveried attendants, no security guards – nobody.
Then I noticed at the far end of the tunnel-like garage, two men who appeared to have taken refuge from the rain.
To make sure they wouldn't view me as management or any other kind of threat, I walked obviously and loudly in their direction – and just to make sure I would sound respectable but not snooty, I rehearsed the critical question, "Does EEther of you...." Or should it be "Do EYEther of you know how to get on the FDR Drive?"
In some form, I asked the question. The two men stopped talking and glared at me. "Uptown or downtown?" one asked.
"Up," I said.
One of the men stepped out in the rain and, pointing toward Park Avenue, said, "Turn right off 49th, go up Park to 62nd, turn right, go to the end, and bear left. You can't miss it, really."
He smiled and came back in where it was dry. "Really, it's a snap," he repeated. "You'll make it easy."
And I did.
Those three episodes probably stuck in my mind because each one was a surprise. Although I consider myself to be relatively optimistic and positive, I'd been expecting indifference and rudeness, and was nearly shocked by behavior that was totally the opposite.
In an effort to summarize all this, I couldn't think of a single word for this joyous but unexpected (by me) behavior. Whatever that word is, it would have to mean acts by individuals who unreservedly enjoy helping, befriending, and entertaining total strangers anonymously – and for no monetary gain.
Some folks might think that such events are merely sporadic occurrences. But on the street there's a pervasive feeling of warmth. This warmth has nothing to do with global warming – or even the temperature – and it's definitely good news for everyone.