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Killed With Kindness

May 14, 2010

Rory reminded me as I was leaving his house in Philadelphia a couple days ago to watch for broken glass on the roads. I’d ridden out to his place in northeast Philly with no problems, and he and I had ridden around the day before with no problems. But as I was riding back toward the city center on Delaware Avenue on my way out of town, I took my eyes off the road in front of me for just a second to look at the big blue Ben Franklin Bridge I’d crossed a few days earlier from New Jersey. I felt a slight jostle and heard a twangy metallic sound, as if I’d run over a loose bundle of wire, followed by a loud “shhhhhhhhh.” My first flat tire of the trip. I pulled off into the parking lot of a closed nightclub with the unsavory name of Flow, took all my panniers off and changed my tube before loading everything back on. I inspected the tire for any major damage, but aside from a small piece of yellow glass embedded in the rubber, I didn’t see anything. I was concerned about the little gash in the tire made by the glass, although no hole went all the way through.

Where I fixed my first flat of the trip.

About a mile later, while waiting at a stoplight, I peered down at the tire to see if it was doing okay, and it was positioned perfectly for me to see a small bubble of rubber erupting through a hole in the sidewall—a completely different issue than the glass. Less than two weeks into the trip and I would need to replace a tire. I stopped where I was, in front of the Franklin Institute in downtown Philly, and went through the whole process again: take off all the bags, change the tire, put all the bags back on.

The only bike shop I passed on my way out of town didn’t have the size tire I needed, but I knew I’d be riding near Swarthmore and figured that a college town would have some bike services. I was right. As soon as I got near the campus, I found a little bike shop but was surprised when I walked in to find that it had very little stock on its shelves. It was either just getting going or going out of business. I thought of turning around and walking out when a heavyset woman in her forties working on a bike in the back of the shop alongside a teenage boy asked if she could help me. When I told her about my tire problem, she said she didn’t have what I needed but that she could call another shop a few miles down the road for me. That would be great, I said. It had taken me about five hours to travel just 20 miles, and it was starting to drizzle. I knew my riding was done for the day, and if I could get a new tire then I could at least feel as if I’d gotten something accomplished. She called the other shop, which had the right size tire. “Great,” I said. “Just point me in the right direction and tell me where to go.” But she didn’t like that idea. With the wet pavement and the bad roads between here and there at rush hour, and me with my wide load, she didn’t want me to ride out that way. “If you give me twenty minutes,” she said plainly, “I’ll drive you there.”

My new tire

Now, it’s one thing to make a call for a customer, but it’s another thing to leave your own shop to drive him somewhere. And maybe it wouldn’t have affected me so much if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of so much kindness since my trip started, mostly from the people who’d put me up and fed me and encouraged me—such as Rory and his wife, Amy, who let me stay with them in Philly for three nights and fed me several meals. (I haven’t even had the chance to tell the story yet of the family in the mansion I stumbled upon and the lake and the kayak, but that’ll have to wait.) The generosity of this woman astounded me. She drove me out to the other store a few miles away and told me her story en route—about leaving New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina but returning there to work as a civil engineer and then moving to Swarthmore when her partner landed a job at a hospital nearby. She opened the bike shop when she couldn’t find work in her field. I told her that she’d gone way above and beyond the call of duty, and she said quite bluntly that, no, she hadn’t. This is how it should be, she said. I needed some help, and that’s what you do: you help people who need it.

The next day, I rode into Arden, Delaware. I pulled up to their little Gild Hall, the center of a lot of the town’s activity. A woman—fifties, curly hair—was putting a few things into her car and was about to get in when I asked her if she knew where I might be able to find the library. We chatted for a second, but it was clear she was in a hurry. I needed a place to camp that night, I told her, and I asked where in town I might be able to set up a tent. She wasn’t sure, but she gave me her phone number and told me to call her in an hour. When I did, she offered me a bed in her home and told me to call her friend, who could feed me dinner that night. I’ll write more about Arden later, but I was planning on staying only one night and have wound up staying two. I’ve been invited to stay longer if I want, but I know I ought to keep going. I feel so grateful and yet somewhat strange and awkward when faced with these moments of such generosity; I can offer only a feeble thank you in return. But perhaps the woman with the bike shop is right. Maybe this is how people ought to be, and to be surprised by it is to be looking at things the wrong way. And if I don’t learn to accept these acts of kindness, I might be doing all the kind people I meet along the way a disservice. What’s the point of feeling bad about allowing someone to do some good?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. elena permalink
    May 16, 2010 4:50 am

    so awesome, how the people you’re encountering, and the way in which they’re reacting to your journey are reflecting the whole concept and foundation of utopian societies. it’s like you’re on your own Utopian Ride: “I told her that she’d gone way above and beyond the call of duty, and she said quite bluntly that, no, she hadn’t. This is how it should be, she said. I needed some help, and that’s what you do: you help people who need it.”

  2. Ashley permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:46 am

    Wow, great entry. I’m impressed with the levels of trust, as well as the kindness. How funny you are experiencing these acts in between your explorations of long-abandoned utopias.

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