Don't Be a Stranger

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 

I misplaced my SmarTrip card, & by “misplaced,” I think I mean “dropped on the sidewalk.” It’s gone forever, unless I find it hidden in my desk drawers months from now (which is possible), so I had to go get a new one. Tonight I stopped by the Woodley Park Metro Station on my way home from an appointment, where it took all of three minutes to complete the entire transaction. I would've been on my merry, cold way home except that I lagged for a bit when I noticed the scene taking place around me.

A group of six middle-aged male tourists were crowded around two of the farecard vending machines, clearly lost. Their English comprehension skills ranged from moderate to nonexistent, & they were obviously struggling with the whole card-reloading process - the buttons, the instructions, the money. I thought about offering them help, but I'm always wary of insulting tourists by, you know, identifying them as tourists, so I just stood there for an extra minute, getting my getting-ready-to-go affairs in order (whatever that means) & trying to look approachable.

As I was about to put my earbuds in & roll out, one of the men approached me. "Are you American?" he asked me in heavily accented English, his expression hopeful. "Do you live here?" I told him I did & that I'd be happy to help, & then I spent the next seven or eight minutes walking them through the reloading process on all six of their cards. (We had to start & stop a few times because one of the guys was dead-set on displaying his understanding of the machines' instructions, pushing buttons at the wrong times, which put a kink in the process more than once.) I also helped them read through the Metro map & sort out their money because... foreign maps & foreign money are tough & terrifying, man.

As I started to help them, I was reminded of two trips of my own. On my first day in Israel, I tried to pay for a case of water with five agorot instead of five shekelim, which is (I think) the equivalent of trying to pay with five pennies instead of five quarters. The storekeeper laughed meanly & scoffed, "No, no," shooing me away to sort out my money troubles without any guidance or understanding.

On my summer trip to London, where I spoke the language but still faced considerable currency confusion, I dreaded paying for anything because why is their money so difficult to figure out? As I tried to figure out which coins would pay for a single miniature cupcake from the famed Hamley's Toy Shop, my anxiety must've been obvious to the girl behind the bakery counter. With no one in line behind me, she spent three minutes giving me a thorough & friendly currency tutorial that was much more helpful than anything I'd read online before my visit.

I spent only a few minutes with today's baffled tourists, but I walked away from that interaction hoping I'd been helpful & friendly enough to leave them with a positive impression of the U.S. & of those of us who live here. They were so appreciative, & for me, it was so easy. I didn't have anywhere to hurry off to, & it's not like it was difficult for me, as a native English speaker with knowledge of the city & of American money, to do what they were struggling so hard to figure out on their own. Beyond that, though, it's just so damn easy to be nice, & as much as I promise to forever cling to my penchant for snark & sass, even I can admit that it feels good to just be good.

Why am I telling you this? It's not so you can tell me what a good person I am; trust me, I'm very often not. And that's the point, actually. The point is that we so often forget how easy it is to be a decent person, so this is just a little reminder. Next time you're in a position to help somebody out, give it a try - even if you're a little busier than I was, or the request is a little more difficult than theirs was. In fact, you know what? Help somebody out even (especially!) if they don't ask for it, because asking for help is scary, but being offered help is an incredible relief.

Do something nice. Be someone nice. And pay it forward, ya filthy animals.

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