Friday, April 2, 2010

Compliments, Not Complaints, for Helpful Strangers

My very first column for "All Life Is Local" generated some interesting reader feedback. One of the first reactions came from a reader who said she's sick of hearing complaints, even comedic complaints put to music and sung by a choir. She writes: "I think we should be more positive and focus on the beautiful things in life... I'm tired of the complaining." Point taken: So I thought with this second column, I should heed her call --um, her complaint, actually--and present some anecdotes about people who have been helpful to strangers. Fortunately, two other responses I received to the column fit the bill nicely.

First, from Lois on Woodley Road: During the height (depths) of the snow, I watched my husband try to dig his car out with our flat-edged, dented, aluminum shovel. Fitfully slow. So I found my pointed garden shovel out back. I was handing it to him when I noticed a young woman across the street trying to dig out her car with a tool as pitiful as my husband's, only plastic. Before giving my shovel to said husband, I punched my way around the ice near the woman's tires, hoping for a quick liberation. It took just a few minutes, and her huge smile and thank you's flooded the street. Soon, too, my stubby garden shovel had freed my husband's car. I then handed the woman my shovel for her to try a few more whacks at the ice, for good measure. More profound thanks followed, in fact, way too much for my small gesture. A few days later I found a lovely, hand-made valentine in my mailbox, along with a bag of Lindt chocolate truffles from the young woman. Now that's appreciation!

And next, from Charlotte on 38th Street: When we rescheduled our tickets to The Rivalry at Fords Theatre, after the snows, the theatre didn't have two seats together, so I was sitting by myself. Behind me, I heard someone say to his companion, "Once at Ford's Theatre we heard, oh, what was his name, he was a cabinet secretary in the Eisenhower administration and then president of U. of Oregon?" Amazingly, since I attended U. of Oregon, I knew the answer! Despite my reluctance to interrupt, I turned around. The three of us, all from greater Cleveland Park, talked avidly about 1960s Oregon. How unlikely is that? One benefit of the snows: more willingness to connect. Oh, the answer: Arthur Fleming, secretary of HEW under Eisenhower.

That leads me to my own little story about a helpful word from a stranger, similar to Charlotte's. I was waiting in a long, slow-moving line with my daughter, and to pass the time, we were discussing her upcoming test in US history, which would cover the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. I remarked to my daughter that when I was in high school during the Johnson Administration, all students had to take a course in Civics, which required us to memorize the names of all members of LBJ's cabinet, and all 9 justices of the US Supreme Court, along with the top positions of both parties in the House and Senate. I aced that test, and I still remember most of them to this day. My daughter pooh-poohed this sort of course, saying any teenager or adult living in Washington who is the least bit interested in current events could name the people in these positions without having to study. Go, I challenged her, name all 9 justices of the current court. She rattled off the first five without hesitation. With some thought she came up with a sixth name. After a bit more pondering, she named a seventh. Then she was stumped and could not come up with another name. I was able to think of one more. But for some reason neither one of us could summon up the last name to complete the court. We were about to give up in frustration (since neither of us had a smartphone with us to allow us just to Google the answer), when a white-haired gentleman in front of us in the line turned around and quietly said one word: Stevens. Thank you, Mr. Random Retired Washington Lawyer Waiting In Line! Only in DC!

And finally, the most helpful responses I received to my column came from readers who alerted me to the existence of Voices of Washington, which is organizing a Complaints Choir of Washington. So far there's just a very spare web site, , with little more than a name, phone number and email address on the "contact" page. But if you'd like to get involved in this effort, that's clearly the place to start. I'm sure the main contact person would welcome any and all helpful strangers willing to come together to make this happen for our city. (My thanks to Susanna Beiser for being the first to pass along this information.)


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on March 5, 2010.

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