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Valentine for a Stranger

Need an excuse to practice random acts of kindness? Good deeds are contagious.

On the spectrum of risky behaviors, this one ranks high only if you fear the fluorescent orange envelope. 

We’d just finished an errand on Newbury Street one Saturday afternoon, and the kids were waiting for me to unlock the car. As I dug out my keys, a couple was parking just in front of us. They got out of their car and headed for the “pay and display” meter, the kind that gives you a sticker receipt. I looked quickly around for someone who might disapprove of what I was about to do. I then took my own parking sticker off the window and asked the driver who was about to pay the machine, “if you only need a few minutes of parking, would you like mine?” 

Surprised, the man looked at me as if I’d made his day. He smiled and thanked me, and happily accepted my little token. A family minivan and children were my cover of normalcy, so I don’t think my offer was suspect, like a ticket in the hands of some solitary scalper near Yawkey Way might be. There were about 15 minutes left on my receipt, and it was just what the couple said they needed for their own errand. If you’re going to the trouble of parking on Newbury Street, you’re no doubt prepared to pay someone for something, and I hadn’t saved the driver much money at all. But he was genuinely appreciative. Maybe our conspiracy against wanting to pay for parking made the gesture a little sweeter.

“Who was that, Mom?” asked my most inquisitive daughter.  “Nobody we know,” I said. “Just trying to do somebody a little favor.”

Call it a random act of kindness – easy, no big deal. But with a small effort you can be the bright spot in someone’s day, and get the kickback of creating a little happiness.

There’s an actual organization called the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which aims to “inspire people to practice kindness and pass it on to others.” They promote a RAK Week every year around Valentine’s Day, which starts Feb. 13. And while the Denver, Colo., group is nowhere near Boston –“it’s just where my computer is,” says manager Brooke Jones ­–“The idea is to move [kindness] all around the world.”

The Foundation was established in 1995, has about 60,000 active users of its website, and is headed for 50,000 Facebook likes. As an organization funded by a publicity-shy benefactor, it takes pains to stay in the background of its purpose – to be a resource of ideas and sharing of ways to spread a little love.

On the website, random act ideas include suggestions as simple as smiling at a stranger or letting someone go in line ahead of you. In the city, these are gestures that can go a long way.  The fact that my kids are still a little surprised when I speak to someone they do not know – that says to me that I could still model friendly behavior more often. (They do understand that they can always feel safe with me, and that I’m not encouraging them to just walk up to any stranger on their own.)

Sometimes you have to be in the right mood to reach out, but there’s nothing saccharine or Pollyannaish about what I’m suggesting you do. Both happiness and cooperative behavior are contagious, according to Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, scientists who’ve written extensively on social networks. Their research has found that not only do your friends and their friends benefit from your good behavior, but strangers do, too.

Back to my getting in the way of a law-abiding citizen paying for his parking: I copied the idea from someone else. We’ve been the beneficiaries of this creative act of ourselves. Here, in print, I can’t encourage what I’m sure would be frowned upon by those whose task it is to make money for the city. But I tell the story because it was something thoughtful someone did for me, and it was fun to engage in some minor subversion for someone else, if just once.

Dear parking gods, please continue to look down upon me with favor, and I promise to practice other random acts of kindness that won’t cost Boston another cent!

Karla Vallance February 08, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Love this idea and love this piece, Angela.
Angela Wang February 09, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Thank you, Karla! Here's an RAK that definitely does not skirt the law: When you are out walking, shopping, or whatever, and you see someone who looks great (because you love his or her outfit, haircut, etc), tell them so. This is such a fun way for a stranger to receive a compliment.

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