In the city, strangers seem more disposed to help you out

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The other day found me back at in Hamtramck at the bar, again, about to enjoy an after-work drink. A few of them, in fact. I had them lined up and waiting when my phone rang. It was my buddy, who will remain nameless for reasons that will soon become obvious. He was supposed to have joined me about 15 minutes earlier, but was instead calling from about five blocks away where his car was stuck on a snowbank. He had called a tow truck and everything, but I told him I'd just walk over and meet him. I borrowed the bar's snow shovel and walked toward Alice and Joseph Campau.

I found him, looking completely sheepish, immediately defensive, saying, "I feel like an idiot, because I was just saying how proud I was of my winter driving skills." Looking at the slick ice on Alice Street, I saw where he probably lost control of his steering and skidded to one side far enough to get hung up on a snowbank. The car was really stuck fast. Also, in just the 20 minutes he'd been there, two teenagers had already stopped to try to help him dig out his car, sharing a shovel between them. I helped dig out a bit as well. We tried pushing backward and forward while the driver stepped on the gas. We tried turning the wheels this way and that. Nothing seemed to work very well. I kept waiting for our young helpers to give up, but they just kept trying to dig.

One thing was certain, nobody else slipped on the ice on Alice. Everybody coming down the street knew something was up if a car was jammed up like that. Cars slowed down as they went by, and a few rolled down their windows. One guy asked in a thick Polish accent, "You have chain?" I shook my head. "Too bad," he said, "You have chain I can pull you out!" My buddy gave me a look that said, "Hell no!" I thanked the motorist and he drove on. Another guy, an elderly African American dude, said, "I have salt. I will help you." He said it with the tone of one deigning to assist. It was actually quite impressive. He crossed the street, parked, and began to come over. By then another young person, perhaps also Yemeni, had joined our little group of "helpers," and had borrowed a shovel and was digging. 

It all came to a halt when the old man walked across the street carrying a large cup of rock salt. He quickly assumed the role of boss of the operation, sweeping away the shovelers and telling people where to stand. He ordered my buddy to step on the gas enough to move the car forward just a bit. He then applied some of his salt just behind the tire. Then he asked my buddy to put it in reverse and gun it back an inch or so and then stop, then put down some rock salt in front of the tire. This went on for a few minutes, with the old man barking commands and applying the salts. Miraculously, the car began to back up a bit more each time. The three Yemeni teens stared in wonder at this sorcery. Frankly, I did too. It was obvious pops had a few more winters' worth of experience than any of us under his belt.

Finally, the car was able to back up enough for my buddy to cut his wheels to the right, and we all gave the car a tremendous shove forward while he gunned it. It worked, and he was able to drive off the ice. The old guy who'd worked his salty magic began walking away, wishing us a good night as if he had nothing more to say, like he was the Lone Ranger or something, leaving us shouting our gratitude at him while he gave us his back. What a remarkable fellow! Even the Yemeni kids were impressed. There was much hand-shaking with them before I tossed the bar shovel in the back seat and caught a ride back to my barstool.

It prompted a conversation about how often this happens in the city: A motorist will get stuck and people will devote sometimes as much as a half-hour to simply helping their fellow human being. This was a perfect example of that. A half-dozen people wanted to help. Several did. One worked magic. None seemed interested in compensation, and one even spurned any thank-yous. 

It prompted me to ask, "Would this sort of thing happen in the suburbs?"

One of the patrons, a Grosse Pointer, said if a car broke down on his street, the police would come right away. And we agreed that, perhaps, where city services are efficient and prompt, most bystanders might presume that official channels will sort it all out. After all, cell phones and credit cards are almost universal, right? 

But there's something about city life that seems to draw people to a problem, perhaps out of sympathy, empathy, or just the need to see something done right. Sure, the city is a place where some bad things happen; that might be why decent people feel the need to step up and help. Because that might be us next time.

It was a good, life-affirming moment. Sure, bad things do happen in the city. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Tom Nigel of Jackson, whose car was broken into at the Heidelberg Project, and he couldn't stop raving about the way Detroiters came to his aid, literally sweeping the glass out of his car for him. That's just par for the course in our fair city. 

I think it's especially important to bear this in mind, especially during a week when the infamy of a few bad guys has made giant headlines. Yes, there are some criminals out there. But the average city resident seems more disposed to lend a hand than anybody else in our region. And you could do worse than rely on the kindness of strangers.


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