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I am wondering if I purchased things from the recently convicted lyrical terrorist, a young lady who worked in a newsagents shop in Heathrow airport that I patronized every time I returned to the UK in recent years.

Today we are advised not to demonise Muslims, because Islam is really a religion of peace and because it has much to offer the UK.

As a traveler, I experienced nothing but kindness and courtesy in Islamic countries. I also met people who confided their desperation to escape, and the opposite, once — a very sultry manager of a coffee shop I frequented in Cairo, quite Westernized in her dress, who told me with a most convincing smile that

In Islam everything is very good; you could see.

I knew, of course, that everything in Islam was not entirely rosy. But not until I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin did the pieces, individually familiar, truly assemble themselves into a picture.

As an aside, I was floored to hear historian Roy Foster say on Start the Week this week that Ireland has effectively, quietly, become a protestant country. On reflection, I realized it was true and that it happened in a relatively short period of time.

The recent decision by London’s Tower Hamlets Council to take a planeload of young Muslims to visit Auschwitz this week is surely a good idea, though some Muslims have opposed it bitterly. I will be interested to see any interviews when they return.

I know that a planeload of young Muslims could be taken to London from the middle east, given a tour of its underbelly and could go home convinced that much they had been led to believe is true. The West is far from innocent. Sexual slavery is alive and well in the UK today. Family breakdown and social disorder of every kind is rampant. We also need to look in the mirror.

Surely, the demonisers on both sides can not be defeated, except by individual acts of humanity and kindness?

My own favourite spontaneous act of kindness happened in New York.

In 1978, as a first year undergraduate, I applied for student visa to the US. They were allocated by lottery because demand exceeded supply at the time. I was lucky and, suitably inspired, I passed even my physics exams, borrowed the fare from father and took off for a memorable summer.

On arrival, foreign students were advised to leave New York right away. It was not a safe place we were told. Most complied.

I decided to see if I could look up a friend of my brother’s in Jackson Heights first, so I went to Queens on the IRT overhead train and by good luck found the right apartment, even though I didn’t have the address.

I was just in time. His parents were retiring, leaving NYC in a few days and, until I turned up, they had wanted him to move in with his brother in Boston. So, I had a place to stay.

Next, I needed a job. I had no luck for a couple of weeks, until the day my money ran out. I borrowed a few dollars, lived on peanut butter sandwiches and skipped the subway fare for a while.

My only treat for the first month was a very occasional 30 cent glass of Miller in a local Irish bar in Jackson Heights called The Liffey. The barman was a Dubliner named Tommy Berry with a son at Fordham University. He knew a hungry student when he saw one, and believe me I was.

Would you like a sandwich?

he inquired one Friday evening. My face must have lit up. “Don’t go to any trouble” I said, thinking that he might, if he had time, slip a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread.

Nothing happened for quite a long time. I tried not to be disappointed even as my stomach gurgled where’s the sandwich? and my head was saying time to go. I hadn’t noticed Tommy on the phone.

Then a man dressed like a chef arrived, wearing a red and white striped apron and carrying a tray. Tommy motioned him in my direction, then peeled off some notes and paid for the finest and most welcome sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life: a steak sandwhich, with a side order of large French fries (chips), and he served me, and also paid for, a wonderful pint of Guinness for good measure, and then another. It remains one of the most unforgettable meals and most agreeable surprises I’ve ever experienced.

I never saw Tommy Berry again after that summer. I stopped by en route to graduate school in Ohio a few years later, after a quick visit to the top of the World Trade Center with my wife. He wasn’t to be found.

I never went back to Jackson Heights, alas. I would love to shake his hand again and take him out for a meal, but what are the chances of that?

Of course, in the Big Apple the impossible sometimes happens. Here is romantic proof: Love at First Site.

All I can do is emulate him by performing some random act of kindness once in a while, for a traveler or refugee or visitor or a displaced person.

Thank you Tommy, and cheers, wherever you are.

7 Responses to “The Kindness Of Strangers”

  1. Seattle says:

    Jackson Heights — As I was never there in the 70s I can’t say how it might have changed… but I visited it recently — for no reason other than my friend’s brother used to live there so why not. It’s certainly a livable-looking place with, sometimes, the national character seeming to change in a single block or even half block. I happened on a spanish-speaking half block and happened into a spanish-language bookstore. Looking for an appropriate gift for my arty daughter (I got the nice trip, she got to slog away on her studies)… I found an incredible selection of art books on Botero, one of our shared favorite artists. So after much contemplation of which would be the PERFECT Botero book, I took one up to the counter where the cheerful owner said, “Oh, as a matter of fact, Botero is due to visit any day now and you could come back if you liked and have the book signed.” Alas, I had to catch a plane the next morning. “Well how about I keep the book and have him sign it and I’ll mail it to you. ” Well ok, I said. Um, would it be very greedy to buy TWO books, one for me and one for my daughter and have him sign them both? “NO, of course not!” Then came the question, “So what would you like him to say?” I looked, I’m sure, a bit like the proverbial headlighted deer. What? “Shall he sign it, ‘Thank you so much for your long friendship.’ or …” and then a series of fond phrases were suggested to me. But I’ve never met him, I protested. Oh, no matter, he is very loving and friends with everyone, I was told. in the event I settled for each of our names in our books… and sure enough, not too long later… they arrived and are treasured. I tried to write a thank you note but it came back “not at this address”… so I messed up somehow. Perhaps I didn’t need a book as much as you needed the sandwich… but the spirit was defintely the same and it’s one of those great life memories.

  2. [...] a small flashback to another act of kindness I experienced in New York — which many think of, and which sometimes likes to think of itself, as a hard-assed sort of [...]

  3. Great story on the kindness of strangers here.

  4. Jerry Quinn says:

    I happened upon this post by chance. You’ll be happy to know that while the Liffey has been closed for about 20 years, Tom Berry is still kicking and living in New Jersey. The act of kindness you relate was something that Tommy did many times over the years, many of which I witnessed. I plan to mail him a copy of your entry.

    Jerry Quinn

  5. Jerry, sorry for the late reply. That’s great news. Feel free to drop me his address on the contact (Badger Me) page if you like. I don’t think I’ll visit New Jersey any time soon but there’s a chance I’ll move back to Ireland soon after 30 years away and if he’s ever back it’d be a great privilege to see him again and thank him personally. His generosity has remained an inspiration.

  6. CJ says:

    Hello Eats Wombats,

    After reading your post, I can tell you that there is a pub called The Liffey II in Inwood, on 213th street. Of course it’s quite the ways from Jackson Heights, but I wouldn’t for a second doubt it’s somehow related. As a New Yorker I can tell you that I’ve never felt anything besides kindness from the Irish expats living in New York, they truly are first class. In my youth, I befriended a young waiter from Donegal who was engaged at 18 and working full time. He spoke volumes to me about the Irish and the Irish community in New York, and how hard working and genuinely nice they are. It was a pleasure reading this story and can tell you that I have the greatest respect for the New York Irish. Thanks a lot.

    CJ

  7. The Liffey II? Well, well, that’s news. Good to know. I’ll look it up someday when I get back to NYC. Getting ready to up sticks again soon.

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