Saturday, June 4, 2011

On Being Nice ...

When I'm in English teacher mode, I deplore the word "nice".  In fact, if my students use the word "nice" in their writing, I have a mild fit and launch into a dissertation on the need for strong adjectives.

That being said, however, I've been called "nice" twice in the past twenty-four hours, once in cyberspace (thanks, Bud :-)) and once in person, and I have to say that it feels ... good (another word that induces the "weak descriptor" lecture, but for some reason it fits here).

On my way home from work yesterday, I stopped at a fairly busy gas station because I wanted a cold Diet Coke (and, to be completely frank, because I had to pee and I knew that this particular convenience store keeps their bathrooms pretty clean).  As I stepped out of my car, I heard someone yell what Ralphie in A Christmas Story refers to as "the 'Queen Mother' of all swears".

I heard people pointing and laughing, but when I got closer to the door, I saw an old man on the ground with his groceries spilled out of the paper bag he'd been carrying, and I got really mad at the stupid rubberneckers.

I walked over to the man and said, "Can I help you, sir?" He looked at me for a long time and said in a quiet voice, "Don't ever get old." His eyes were a very light blue and the whites were yellowed and shot through with red snaps. I suspect this meant that he was a drinker, but that didn't matter.

What mattered was that nobody should have to lay on the dirty asphalt of a gas station parking lot while a bunch of people stand around laughing.

I asked again, "Can I help you, sir?", and he slowly sat up, gathered his grocery items back into the bag and handed them to me.

"Could you put this in my car, please?" he asked.

His vehicle was an old and rusty blue station wagon, very similar to the one my mother gave my brother shortly after he got his license (in 1987). The back of the car was filled with stuff, and the bench seat in front was dirty and stained. I put the groceries gently into the passenger seat, trying not to breathe too deeply (it reeked of cigarettes and body odor and musty, dusty air).

When I turned back to the man, he was struggling to get up and not having much success. He scooted himself closer to the car using his hands and tried mightily to allow the relative stability of the station wagon assist him in getting to his feet.

If my back hadn't hurt so badly, I would have been on the ground helping him from the start, but at this point, I realized that getting him off the ground was more important than my stupid back (and people were still pointing and laughing, although not as loudly).

I bent down, ignoring my stupid back, and he put one hand on my arm and the other on his car. He slowly pulled himself to his feet, and I wanted to cry. "Don't ever get old," he repeated.

When he was finally sitting back in his car, he unrolled the window. "You're a very nice girl," he told me. "I can't thank you enough."

"Oh, it's no problem," I said, and started to head toward the store before looking back at him. "Um, make sure you take some ibuprofen when you get home. Sometimes when you fall like that, you get really stiff and sore afterwards even if you don't notice it right away."

"Ibuprofen?" he asked, a blank look on his face.

"Advil, Motrin, that sort of thing," I replied. "I have some in my car, if you want me to run and grab you some."

"Oh, no thank you, I have pain pills at home." He paused. "Thank you again for being so nice."

"You're very welcome," I said. "I hope you feel better soon."

And then I went into the gas station and used the restroom and got my Diet Coke (and a Milky Way bar ... my weight is really starting to go to hell, but it was like I needed something to sweeten the bitterness I was feeling) and when I got back outside, he was gone.

My back was starting to really kill, so I took some of the ibuprofen I'd offered the old man and drove home. And thought. A lot.

Helping out the old man had taken less than five minutes. If my stupid back hadn't been hurting, it would have taken even less time. Why was it that the other people at the gas station (and there were a lot of people there, either pumping gas since the price was lower than I've seen it in months or going in and out of the store) didn't stop to help the guy out?

And not only did they not walk over and make sure he was okay, they pointed. They laughed. They found it amusing that he'd yelled, "Fuc*" as he fell to the ground.

I am no saint. I have a zillion and a half faults. My faults, however, do not extend to not just ignoring a fellow human being in need of a simple helping hand but laughing at his misfortune.

I don't think I'm exceptionally "nice" in the great scheme of things ... it's just that clearly so many other people are evidently not.

And that realization was just horrible.