Margaret Van Every
The phrase “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” was written by Anne Herbert on a placemat in Sausalito, California in 1982. It was her answer to the phrase “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.” Herbert’s book Random Acts of Kindness, published in 1993, relates true stories of acts of kindness.
Brady woke up one Saturday morning knowing this would be the day. He hummed a tuneless ditty as he opened his desk drawer and removed five small business envelopes. Sitting down at the desk, he took a clean sheet of paper from his printer and creased it into two horizontal sections and one vertical. With his pen knife he carefully slit along the folds yielding six uniform pieces of paper on which he would write his act of kindness message. He thought a moment, then wrote in legible block letters GOD IS LOVE. HAVE A NICE DAY. BRADY. But after writing the first note, he pondered a moment and had misgivings. It would come across as self-serving to include his name, as though calculated to elicit some kind of credit. Perhaps it would look like an attempt to personalize his connection with the recipient, in effect asking for a thank you and thereby aborting the intention.
No, it was clear. The perpetrator of kindness had to remain anonymous and so he tore that trial note into pieces. Now he had five clean sheets of paper left and he confidently wrote his unsigned message on those five sheets and put them in the envelopes along with a crisp $20 bill. He licked and sealed all five envelopes and laid them in a neat stack on the table next to the door.
While eating his cereal he got to pondering again. Might it not frighten people to take an unmarked envelope from a stranger? These were scary times. A person might reject his innocent gesture for fear of anthrax powder inside or even an explosive. He retrieved the envelopes, then with a magic marker drew a flower on each and wrote BLESS YOU.
He knew that his first impression could make or break his success in committing acts of kindness so he dressed himself clean cut as a Mormon missionary on house call duty… not including the tie for fear people would think he was out to evangelize. Potential beneficiaries might reject his AOK if he weren’t clean shaven or if he wore his usual weekend uniform of shorts, T-shirt, and shabby sneakers. True, he’d feel most comfortable in those clothes on this hot June day, but this day wasn’t about him. He knew he had to dress for them.
He took stock of himself in the mirror and practiced his opening line with his most genuine smile. GOOD MORNING. PLEASE ENJOY THE DAY. Then picking up his five envelopes, he flew down the two flights of stairs, heart beating wildly in anticipation of randomly bestowing kindness. Stepping into the cool morning, he inhaled deeply. He was about to give away 100 hard-earned dollars to five strangers.
Setting off in the direction of town, he passed two women walking arm in arm. GOOD MORNING. PLEASE ENJOY THE DAY, he ventured, smiling and extending his hand with two envelopes, one for each. The women refused to look him in the eye and kept on walking. He thought he heard a muffled snicker after they passed.
Oh, well, rejection happens. He reassured himself it was nothing he did wrong and went on. He next approached a young man with some kind of device stuck in his ear, walking a bicycle. Brady seductively waved an envelope and proffered an invitation with raised, questioning brows and a nod, but the kid pointed to his ear by way of explanation and kept going.
He saw a cop and knew he’d have his first taker, but the cop saw him coming and crossed the street. Multiple attempts ensued without success for more than an hour. Brady decided he’d have better luck if he went somewhere where people were congregated. A couple of blocks further and he could slip into the Hootspah Deli. It was getting near lunchtime and there’d be a sandwich line for sure. He slipped into the line like he was going to buy something, and started offering his AOK. Most of the prospects were dressed in their weekend comfy clothes—old teeshirts, shorts, and flipflops.
He changed his pitch to HEY, ANYONE HERE WANT $20 FOR FREE? NO OBLIGATION. YOU’LL NEVER SEE ME AGAIN, I PROMISE. THIS IS AN ATTEMPTED RANDOM ACT OF KINDNESS . . . ANYONE?
The guy behind the sneeze-guard constructing a Ruben looked up, “Hey kid, no soliciting here. Sorry, you’ll have to vamoos.” Brady left and offered an envelope to a customer leaving the Deli, opening the door of his Tesla. The man paused a moment, looked Brady over, and volunteered some advice, “You’re peddling to the wrong market, Kid. Hootspah clients have no use for your act of kindness. They have incomes way over $100 thousand. Give it to a down-and-outer who needs it. Why don’t you try the corner of 6th and Grover? You’ll see, that’s a better location for giving stuff away. You’ll find plenty of takers there.”
Brady realized his AOKs were becoming less and less random. “Who woulda thought I’d need demographers and marketers to tell me where and how to give free money away? Perhaps without the element of need, it’s not even kindness. It’s just a frivolous gesture to prove something inconsequential to myself.” He headed toward the less affluent part of town, determined that he would not give up until he had perpetrated all five acts of kindness. He realized his feet were tired, his clothes dripping, and he was getting real hungry, but worst of all, his spirits were flagging. He never anticipated that AOKs would entail such hard work and rejection.
Nonetheless he slogged on, ten more blocks in the blistering noonday heat. The closer he got to the magic corner, the more debris cluttered the sidewalk and the stench of urine and stale alcohol fouled the air. He began passing sleeping, perhaps drunk or drugged derelicts here and there in doorways or stretched out on the sidewalk. Perhaps he could slip an envelope into the hand of an unconscious beneficiary who would then discover it on waking and rejoice, but he nixed the idea. It would probably get spent on more booze or drugs and he would be the enabler. It would be the exact opposite of an act of kindness.
He trudged along until he came to a corner where four heavily tattooed young men with metal studs in their eyebrows were hanging out in their undershirts and low-low-slung jeans, talking loudly and laughing. Brady knew he didn’t belong in this neighborhood and his clothes were all wrong. He’d never have the nerve to open a conversation with these guys. He tucked his five envelopes in his shirt pocket and started walking faster. Having passed them, he heard that familiar contemptuous snicker. Picking up his pace, his adrenaline began pumping. Just as he broke into a run, a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him to the ground. Pointing an open switchblade at Brady the guy said, “Hey, dude. Relax. Just gimme your wallet and all will be fine.” From where he was on the ground, Brady fumbled around in his pants pocket and fished out his near empty wallet and extended it to the young man. “Have a nice day,” said Brady.
“Thanks,” said the thief, “you have a nice day, too.”