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Random Acts

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I stood leaning against the rear fender of my cab as the evening Amtrak came to a noisy stop. It was early June and I didn’t expect much. The students were gone and the summer tourist season wouldn’t begin in earnest for a few weeks. I was watching a few travelers disembark from the front coach when a voice called out from behind me.

“Hey, man! Yo, cabbie!”

It was a tall black man in his mid-twenties whom I recognized as a fare from this past winter, maybe around Christmas.

“You remember me?” he asked. “I’m Tony. Can you give me a ride again?”

“Sure, good to see you, Tony,” I replied. “Jump in the front. You’re in the South End, right?”

Good memory,” he said as he climbed in, stashing a small pack at his feet. “I’m on Wells.”

“Sir, do you know where the shelter is in Burlington?”

I turned back to the window to face a woman, also in her twenties, carrying a crammed backpack and two worn suitcases. Her long auburn hair, which showed signs of premature graying, was pinned up in a makeshift bun with strands falling around her face. Her torso seemed sunken, not just from the weight of the bags she carried. She looked like a recently released prisoner of war.

“Yeah, I do,” I replied. “D’ya need a ride there?”

“I do need a ride, but I don’t have much money.”

“How about two bucks? Can you manage that?”

Her sad blue eyes seemed to light up for a moment and, peripherally, I noticed Tony nod a couple of times. This was a relief, because I knew he knew his ride was going to be more than two dollars.

“Thanks,” she replied. “That’ll be great.”

I loaded her personal effects into the trunk and, as we got underway, I recalled more of my earlier ride with the guy sitting next to me. Tony worked at the hospital — as a technician of some sort, I think — and, like me, he was a big NBA fan.

He must have been thinking along the same lines, because as we approached the fairgrounds he said, “Man, you were right about those Knicks; their collapse this year was total.”

“Yeah, but what about the Nets?” I said, “Jason Kidd has been simply awesome. Who would have thought —”

“Wow, you have A&Ps here,” the woman in the back commented, oblivious to our conversation. “That’s great.”

“Burlington ain’t in the boonies,” my seatmate jumped in, switching gears. “We have everything up here. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Hartford. I had to leave town wicked quick. Things were not working out for me down there.”

“Well, Burlington’s a good place. You get yourself settled, I’m sure you’ll do real well.”

“What about work? I got to work; I need to get some money.”

Tony pivoted in his seat to face the woman in the back. “This is what you do,” he said. “On North Winooski Avenue there’s a storefront that offers daily pay for daily work. You show up there tomorrow, I’m sure you can catch some day work.”

I glanced up at my rearview and saw the woman break into a big smile. “Thanks so much, dude. So far Burlington is turning out to be one friendly town!”

We reached the homeless shelter on lower Church Street and I unloaded the woman’s stuff. She came around the vehicle clutching a small paisley-printed coin purse.

“That’ll be two dollars, right?” she asked hopefully.

“You got it,” I replied, and she removed a couple of crumpled bills and handed them to me.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, “and good luck in Burlington.”

On the way to his home, Tony and I talked about the ongoing basketball playoffs. For a lot of men — and I’m one of them — sports talk is a satisfying form of male intimacy. Tony seemed to enjoy it, too.

We pulled in front of his place on Wells Street. He thanked me for the ride, handed me some bills and got out. As he made his way up the brick path to his front door, I noticed he had given me four bills — two ones and two tens.

“Hey, Tony!” I called from my open window. “I think you made a mistake. The fare was 12 dollars and you gave me 22.”

He looked over his shoulder and said, “No, it’s okay. That’s to cover the homeless girl.”

I nodded. He nodded back.

I drove back downtown, my eyes welling with tears. What an unaffected gesture of kindness, I thought, performed without a shred of self-congratulation. He wouldn’t have said a word unless I had asked. And that was the part that moved me the most.

I found myself easing over to the side of the road and cutting the engine. Above me the night sky was completing its transformation from blue to black. In this dog-eat-dog world, I pondered, how does a person develop a heart like Tony’s?

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