Sunday, July 25, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

These things happen every now and then. Hopefully, you’re making them happen sometimes. I had a nice one on Saturday that’s worth noting. Saturday was possibly the hottest day of the year here: temperatures in the mid-90s with high humidity. Just the sort of brutally hot New York day that encourages sane people to stay inside and not move. Because you move, you sweat, a lot. It’s been a pretty miserable summer in this respect, with forecasters noting “a cooling period” when the day-time highs drop to the high 80s.

We had a tornado warning Friday night around 8:30 that luckily only turned out to be a nasty thunderstorm for half an hour. Blew right through. I didn’t hear any branches coming down on the street, so I felt all right. Got up this morning, surveyed the landlord’s patio, some minor stuff down from high winds, but nothing horrible. Turned the corner, and saw that one of the dead trees on her property had snapped off near the trunk and was suspended against the telephone wires up above.

Man. This was a mixed blessing. Any time part or all of those dead trees come down, it saves her a truckload of money in terms of not having to get them cut down eventually, which would be a four-figure proposition around here. So it was a good thing that this entire tree had come down in one fell swoop.

It was a bad thing in that someone would have to bring the thing down and clean it up … that someone being me. On the hottest day of the year. I took my clothes to the laundromat and set about doing this in between loads. You can guess that I sweated buckets – looked like I had jumped in a pool with my clothes on, sweat just pouring off my body as I worked on this thing. First move was to push the hanging tree over to the sidewalk so I could then grab the broken-off trunk and pull it down the sidewalk, thus bringing the whole severed tree down. Which I did, with a great bang and crash as 30 feet of dead wood hit the sidewalk and cracked. I jammed my thumb in the process, a similar injury I used to get all the time playing basketball in my childhood. Thought I’d broken it, too, hurt like hell, but kept moving and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

It was easy pulling off the broken branches and stacking them on the patio. The hard part came in sawing down the trunk, with a small branch saw I have for tree limbs, so I could carry large chunks of it to the patio. This was where the sweat really started pouring. Sun was beating directly down on the sidewalk, just relentless. Got to the point where I had the 10-foot long stump of the trunk to go, still too heavy to drag or carry, with about a 20-inch diameter to cut through. You can’t do this easily with a branch saw. You have to feverishly cut here and there, rotate the trunk as much as possible, keep cutting, and when you think you’re getting close, repeatedly pick up the trunk and slam it on the sidewalk, or position it so you can jump up and down on it and hopefully break it in half.

This sucked. Really sucked. I must have sounded like Mel Gibson phoning his girlfriend. It was taking me forever, close to an hour of fruitless sawing and dropping, and I was losing my mind. I went into my apartment and got Dad’s old hammer, using the claw to chip out the wood I had been sawing at, which was working, until I bent the head of the hammer in half. It was that kind of job.

Had I kept going like this, I’d have eventually won out over the stump, but it would have taken a long, long time. Just then, this older Mexican guy who was clearly walking around the neighborhood collecting plastic bottles from the trash saw me, came over, called out, “Amigo need help?” He immediately took the branch saw and started going at it, which went a lot better with one guy, me, holding the stump down. I’d had the job about 80% done on my own but was losing steam and sanity. This guy came along at the perfect time, when I felt like quitting, and apropos of nothing save being a nice guy, he helped a stranger on a day when fucking nobody was going to help me.

Five minutes later, we picked up the stump and dropped it on the sidewalk. Nothing. Again. This time we heard a slight crack, both of us smiling. But it was still connected. At this point, I started jumping on the stump as it was at a slight incline, and sure enough, I snapped it with my body weight, breaking that piece of shit down into halves that could be carried onto the patio. I was elated. This guy was a saint … and if I’m not mistaken, he hadn’t even broken a sweat. He even helped carry the second huge piece on the patio, heaving it on his back.

I gave him a $10 spot for his troubles, which he gladly accepted, and we shook hands. He asked me if I wanted to take down the other dead tree on Sunday. I said no, wasn’t my call to make, and the landlord didn’t have any more space to put the limbs. So he picked up his plastic bags of empties, bid me a good day and went on his way.

That random act of kindness had me thinking all day. It’s hard to find friends when there’s hard work to be done – I’ve found this to be very much true. You can generally count those people in your life on one hand. I try to be one of those people because I know how hard it is to do stuff like an apartment/house move, or shovel snow, or clear a yard of debris, or anything that would be hard as hell on your own. Even if I don’t know you that well, I’ll clear time to do something like that. On one hand, I simply like doing that kind of work in small doses. On the other, this is what you do for people you know … help them when you can.

Of course, it’s not all that rosy and self congratulatory. I have people in my life I’ve let slide. People with bad problems. In most cases of their own doing, but sometimes a combination of things: sliding off the map AND having something catastrophic occurring to deepen the bad luck streak. And I find myself strangely distant in these situations. More accurately, I make myself strangely distant and don’t make much of an effort to bridge the gap.

It’s a guilt thing with me – I feel bad about this handful of bad situations in my life. Won’t get into specifics or name names. But it does bother me that I’ll bend over backwards to give you any sort of physical help you need but will hedge on the emotional variety at times. In each case, I have to note, situations where the person spent years burning down the house in some sense: drinking, drugs, carousing, etc. These aren’t bad people, but they’ve had issues that have gone on for decades. And I guess it offends me in some spiritual sense that the message (stop doing this shit) didn’t sink in after the first warning shot. Or the second. Or the first radical failure. Or the second. Or the third. And so on.

I know the cause of their decline shouldn’t matter, but it does. So much of how I see the world now can be traced back to the winter of 2004, watching Dad pass away. When you see someone in your life like that get pile-drived by a disease and slammed into physical failure and then death, it has a profound effect. In other words, I saw someone I care about a great deal have his health destroyed by circumstances beyond his control, watched him fight these circumstances to the best of his abilities, and lose.

That experience turned me ice cold towards people who throw their lives away. Some who are friends and acquaintances, too. I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on these people. Haven’t even read a single one of them the riot act. People are going to live however they want to live, and I’m not going to stop them. But after watching my father have the shit kicked out of him in a hospital bed, I get fucking angry when I see people willfully put themselves in harm’s way in any sense. As you get older, you see, some people push themselves into a downward slide, repeatedly, over and over, year after year, willfully making the wrong choices, in the mistaken belief that their youth, wits and guile will get them through, like they have in the past. Not realizing how much they’ve eroded their reserves of youth and luck. Much less the good will of those around them who’ve spent as long a time putting up with this stuff. Bad shit catches up to all of us, and much faster if you entertain it.

So I can rationalize my inaction on that part, but still recognize there’s a person there I’ve known for a long time, decades or much of my life in some cases, and I’m letting the person down. I’m not writing this as some sort of emotional pep rally to get back into these situations – I’ll probably go on doing very little to nothing in each situation – but I am aware of it and can acknowledge it. Which counts for very little here. But I’d rather see this larger picture of myself than focus in on my desire to randomly help people when they need it. Life gets tricky like that. Or maybe it just gets more clear. When you’re younger, you tend to focus on your positive qualities because that’s how you want the world to see you. But you get older, you see it all within yourself, the good and the bad, hopefully can acknowledge both, and understand your shit truly does stink just like everyone else’s. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the rest of your days doing good and bad things, and wondering how it all pans it out in the end.

Still, what that guy did for me today was great, and it registered, will surely influence me to do the same in situations where there is no personal gain for me, save to help someone having a rough time. Be a saint when you can, because it’s not as hard as you think it is. No one bats a thousand, so there’s no harm in hitting one out of the park every now and then to counter-balance those times when you strike out using a corked bat and blame it on the ump.

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