21. Helping Strangers

I have noticed a big difference between Italy and the U.S. when it comes to helping strangers. In the U.S., at least in the Northeast, people seem self-involved and mistrusting. A stranger’s question about location will often be met with the blank stare or, at best, shrug of someone who hurries away. In Southern Italy, where I was born, you can walk up to just about anyone for directions or other information, and you will receive a helpful answer.

My wife – who was raised on the East Coast – tells me that there are regional differences in the U.S. as to how friendly people are. And, of course, not all people in any region react the same way toward people they don’t know.

My wife, for example, could be a poster child for American affability.

One day when she was in her last class of the day in graduate school (long before we met), the overhead lights went out. It was a very sunny day, so this had no effect on the class, and the professor pressed on. When my wife went outside, she noticed long lines of cars stopped at traffic lights that were out. The honking was incessant. There was a blackout in lower Manhattan.

To return home, my wife would have taken an underground train, which could not run without electricity. Just as she was wondering what to do, her friend/classmate “Lynn” asked if she’d like a ride in her car. Relieved, my wife accepted.

The friends packed their backpacks into Lynn’s car. As Lynn and my wife were about to enter the car, a tall man with a scruffy beard and good shoes, accompanied by a well-coiffed woman also in good shoes, approached.

“Please, please, can you help us?” the man asked with a European accent. He was too well dressed to be a panhandler.

“Help you? How?” suspicious Lynn asked.

The man, who said his name was Paolo, explained that he and his girlfriend had landed at JFK airport that morning, with a lengthy layover before their connecting flight to Milan. They decided to do some sightseeing in Manhattan instead of killing time at the airport.

“So we are on the subway to go back to the JFK,” Paolo said, “when everything stopped. The lights, the air conditioning, the train itself.” The passengers were stuck in the hot, dark train for a long time before being allowed to disembark. Paolo and his girlfriend, Edwige, made their way up to the street, just a block from my wife’s school. No taxis would stop for them. Edwige struggled to hold in her anguish.

“Is there any way you can take us to the airport?” Paolo asked. “Our flight leaves in a little over an hour. I will pay you, of course.” (This was well before the security measures now in place at airports.)

Lynn and my wife discussed the matter among themselves. Ultimately, out of compassion and a sense of adventure, they agreed to try to get the couple to the airport for their flight home. But first, Lynn insisted on inspecting the couple’s attaché case and handbag (in case of bombs or weapons, she later explained). My wife thought that was excessive, but the couple readily agreed.

On the ride from lower Manhattan to Jamaica, Queens, where the airport is located, Paolo explained that he and Edwige both worked at a university. They were on their way back from a convention in Mexico City. Edwige had not wanted to go, and Paolo had worked hard to change her mind. While in Mexico City, the couple found itself in the worst flooding seen there in 50 years. As if on cue, Edwige’s tears flowed down her face. My wife kept handing her tissues.

“Grazie,” Edwige said, as her English was very limited. Paolo kept talking, either out of gratitude or anxiety.

Traffic out of Manhattan was heavy, due to the confusion caused by the lack of traffic lights. The rest of the ride was fine, but Paolo and Edwige still missed their flight to Milan. However, they were immediately booked for a later flight. Lynn would not accept money from Paolo, so he insisted on buying drinks.

When the waiter came to their table to take the order, Edwige said, without hesitation, “Whiskey and soda.”

Lynn and my wife laughed, delighted by Edwige’s perfect English. The now-relaxed Italians joined in the laughter.

Happy Birthday USA courtesy of “Mrs. Anton”

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