The kindness of strangers

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This morning we were a little early to the platform and my flatmate spotted a Puccino’s across the tracks. We threw each other a cheeky grin and tripped gaily to the coffee booth. However, when we got there I opened my wallet and realised I had no more than 50p on me, at the same time as my flatmate realised she had only just enough for her cup of tea. We’d already both put an order in so I cancelled my coffee as she said “We’ll share the tea…” taking time out for a few jokes about sucking at the tea bag and stealing extra milk.

A few seconds later the couple that had just left with their own drinks popped a hand back through the door holding a fiver, saying “Give the guys the change; everyone needs a coffee in the morning.”

I was stunned. My flatmate was stunned. The hand disappeared and we both sang out a thank you, amazed by such a random act of generosity.

Well, I bought the coffee and ran after the lovely couple to say thank you again, proffering my card with the words: “If you ever need anything recycled…” They both laughed and continued down the platform. The guys working at Puccino’s were delighted with the large tip, and all six of us involved in the experience had smiles on our faces.

My flatmate and I discussed the whole event at length making reference to Karma, Marcel Mauss, human capacity for kindness and ultimately what a lovely thing to have happened on an unseasonably cold Friday morning.

Writing here now though, I am made aware of the possibilities for community on a commute, or at stations along your commute. A coffee for a stranger and a tip for the baristas led to more goodwill than the same amount of money would have done in the cup of a beggar at Old Street station. I know this because I have often given my change to the various guys who sit at Exit 2, and apart from one occasion where a charming man called Antony introduced me to his dog, there is rarely a shared moment; if anything it emphasises the differences between us.

On the station this morning there was a shared understanding. The generous stranger’s words, “everyone needs a coffee in the morning” I guess made some kind of reference to our similar situation (both clearly earning, both making the trudge to work). It wasn’t charity, so much as a gesture of goodwill…

I don’t know. Maybe I should have said “oh no, give this money to charity” and not had my coffee. Or even say thank you, not had a coffee and then tried to choose between the 100,000 worthy charities in this country for a recipient of the cash. Except that this woman had chosen to use her money in this way. Would it have been rude of me to pass judgement on this and reject her kindness?

It is so easy as a “good Christian” to feel guilty about this, but I don’t believe that I need to. In relationships and in communities and in the wider society there needs to be a balance of give and take, there needs to be a dynamic. This morning my kind stranger recognised a fellow commuter in need of a coffee. I feel there’s a lot to learn from that.

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