A Tone of Entitlement

We have all by now — or most of us anyway — found ourselves familiar with the phrase “random acts of kindness.” I first saw it on a bumper sticker some years ago: “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.” If not that specific saying, then perhaps, “pay it forward,” since it was a passably good movie with a popular movie star. Recently I’ve begun noticing evidence of what might be some effects from these kinds of suggestions.

Recently, Bill Maher made an observation on The Larry King Show that our miserable economy seems to be sprouting manners in otherwise habitually rude merchants. His idea was that shop owners will greet you more warmly, maybe offer you a chair or a cup of coffee with a “Gee, I’ve been dying for your business” kind of attitude.

I found myself smiling at Maher precisely because I have noticed and in some cases continue to notice this at times. The most blatant example was nearby, at Andy’s Smoke Shop on Sixth Avenue. I really thought I had brought my wallet. I hadn’t. I was ready to walk back three blocks to get it, but Frank Sagmina said, “Wait!” Frank had seen me smoke some gawdawful cigarettes and asked if I could smoke Grand. I said I bet I could. “Just bring me the $3.19 [or something] tomorrow.” He gave me the pack on credit.

Within a day or two, at Whole Foods in Hillcrest, a man in front of me asked me to move my cup of coffee a bit to make room for his groceries on the conveyor belt. I agreed, of course, and stifled a crack; his tone was one all too familiar in San Diego, a tone of entitlement. I expected a follow-up suggestion from him along the lines of “and cut your sideburns too,” or “step back a little, you’re crowding my personal space.” I was not prepared for what actually happened. He turned to the cashier and said, “Let me get his coffee, please. I’d like to pay for that.”

I turned to my right, expecting a punch line, but he was quite serious. His appearance was that of a soul musician from the early ’60s, usually seen photographed seated on a stool and holding a saxophone, with an all-blue background. The album title might be something like Black Coffee ’Til Dawn.

“Pass it on,” he then said, just like Kevin Spacey in the movie. This was a new on me. I’d kind of expected it after that film, but it never happened until now. I said that I would. I meant it. I haven’t yet.

The other occasion happened at the City Deli, where I was having a late-night sandwich. A man walked in. He wore a leather motorcycle jacket over a baby-blue pajama top, a bed-head of disheveled hair, sweat pants, and, I’m guessing, his wife’s tattered pink bedroom slippers. He proffered a crumpled handful of single dollar bills to a stooped, Dickensian-looking waiter with an air of permanent and unconditional disapproval of whatever might be presented to him, a kind of 1940s film version of an officious department store floor walker.

The supplicant explained that he was up at this hour with a crying two-year-old who refused to sleep unless he was given an order of Dad’s french toast. The man had all the ingredients but no maple syrup. He displayed his crumpled bills and asked if he might get a small container of the stuff. The waiter actually sniffed, looked at the man as if he were the worst sort of homeless blight upon society, weighed the situation, and then disappeared momentarily, perhaps conferring with a higher authority among the Maple Syrup Inventory and Dispensary Committee. He soon produced some two ounces of Aunt Jemima’s or whatever it was. The waiter sniffed again; the meaning was unmistakable this time: Go. Consider yourself smiled upon by the gods and never darken our napkins again. The thing about it, it was clear this was nothing less than the most unusual kind of magnanimousness on the part of a man who had waited on kings, lawyers, Michael Reagan.

Next, I left my cell phone in a taxi. Don’t ever do that in a Yellow Cab unless Dan is on shift at the lost and found. He’ll go above and beyond the call of duty. Meanwhile, Trisha, Kevin, and Tim at my old hotel, the Friendship, allowed me to use their cells multiple times. Erika Cooke, a neighbor from across the street, did the same, repeatedly, as I called my son. She always asks about him as if she knows him. She does not. Then Ron drove me to retrieve the phone. He needed the gas money, but still, he didn’t have to do it.

Mine, at the moment, may not have been a crisis, but I must have made it look that way. Could it be that the crushing hard times ahead may press and distill more of that sweet milk of human kindness?

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