Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
There’s a worn cliché I’ve seen around that harkens to the days of bell-bottom jeans, patchouli oil and bad poetry. It’s a bumper-sticker manifesto, short and sugar sweet: “Practice random acts of kindness.”
No surprise, there are several Facebook pages bearing the same slogan, inviting people to save the world through kindness. There’s even The Random Act of Kindness Foundation funded by an anonymous donor, promoting World Kindness Day (Nov. 13) and World Kindness Week (Feb. 10-16), and featuring “kindness testimonials” from all around the globe.
OK. It sounds all warm and fuzzy and dripping with overly simplistic idealism. But every so often, in these days of road rage and “revenge porn,” a small dose of human kindness wins out.
That was the case last week when I received a letter from a reader.
Earlier in the month, I had written an essay for the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine about a 56-year-old man named John, who lives in his rusty 1961 Ford Falcon. I met John at the Wauwatosa Public Library, where he parks nearly every weekday. He told me he’s been homeless now for seven years. He has emphysema, asthma and arthritis. A few weeks after I met him, he was admitted to the ER after one of his lungs collapsed.
John the Homeless lives on $800 a month in federal Supplemental Security Income. He lost his job in the electronics industry in 2008, just before the recession, and hasn’t worked since, largely because of his illnesses. So he sleeps in his car, eats at supermarket delis and McDonalds, and spends much of his waking hours in libraries, surfing the Internet and reading books.
Shortly after the essay was published, a letter came across my desk, a single page, handwritten in impeccable penmanship from a woman from West Allis. She too had seen hard times. But with assistance programs for health care, rent, food and utilities, she’s able to live on SSI payments of just $727 each month and her income as a part-time crossing guard during the school year.
“I sympathize and feel badly for him,” she wrote. “But I have to tell, you, there are many of us out here who manage to get by and don’t have to be homeless.” She wanted to offer John some advice. And she had a gift for him.
“I have a brand new men’s winter coat that I’d like to give to him,” she wrote. “It’s extremely warm and of great quality – L.L. Bean. Do you think this would work for him?”
I phoned the woman and told her how to get in touch with John. When I asked if I could use her name in this blog, she declined, preferring to remain anonymous. “I like to keep the candle under the basket instead of above it,” she said.
A few days later, John the Homeless met the Anonymous Samaritan in the lobby of the West Allis Public Library. The L.L. Bean coat was way too big, as John would later tell me. “But she also had a pair of nice gloves,” he said, and suggestions on how to apply for food stamps and housing assistance, and where to buy a $15 cell phone.
When he last contacted me, John was encouraged by the possibilities. A longtime smoker, he had stopped, cold turkey. He had begun to follow up on a couple of low-income housing options and food stamps. And he had a line on getting a free phone. Who knows, maybe a job offer would come his way next.
A few phone numbers. A pair of gloves. A random act of kindness. It could change the course of history, one life at a time.