I was waiting to use the bathroom

March 2000

I was waiting to use the bathroom in the basement of an old-fashioned New York coffee shop. I might have wasted several minutes of my one priceless life there; no one was in the bathroom, the lock was broken. But a dishwasher—a Mexican-American illegal immigrant, I would guess; a man working long hours for less than the minimum wage, no benefits—happened to walk by, and without a word fetched a knife and slipped the lock for me.

Here was a man who owed me nothing and could hope to get nothing more than thanks from me. And I hadn’t even asked him to help me. And thus I more fully appreciated that he did help, and I felt a warm feeling of community with this man who didn’t even speak my language, nor I his. Here, I felt, was another person who reacted like me, who shared my idea—or feeling—as to how people should behave toward one another.

Later that same week I brought a box of Q-Tips to a drugstore counter, and instead of just ringing it up and taking my money, the clerk told me there was a larger box on sale for the same price. When I couldn’t find the box on the shelf, she came around from behind the sales counter to find it for me. In fact, I would have been just as happy buying 100 Q-Tips for $1.99 as 350, but I understood that this woman didn’t realize this—to her the much lower cost per item was significant, well worth the unwieldiness and obscenity of such a large box of Q-Tips.

I realized that she liked saving people money. Probably she felt better about herself on account of this deed, for securing an extra 250 Q-Tips for a stranger, and so we could say that she was getting rather more from the transaction than I was. But, in fact, in this particular instance, my reward was much greater. Because, between this clerk and the dishwasher, I had a sense that New York harbors a secret society of people—a society of which I counted myself a member—people who have an eye out for the needs of others, for people who (outside their being people) mean nothing to them.

It is a very odd society, for one because I suspect that most every New Yorker feels that this is a very small society, and that he or she is one of its most worthy members. I also wonder if the desire—or need—to help strangers isn’t related to a lack of kin or cohorts who one can or wishes to help. I wonder if helping strangers isn’t at times a perverse manifestation of the human instinct to help one’s family or tribe.

I have elsewhere written about how apparently altruistic acts are, rather, attempts to influence others’ behavior or to establish one’s moral superiority. There is also noblesse oblige—which in the twentieth century United States is an attempt to lay claim to social superiority by imitating the real or imagined behavior of European aristocrats of past centuries. The examples here suggest that altruism is also a neurosis that appears in those whose instinct to help kith and kin is, temporarily or permanently, too difficult or painful to express.

Rousseau speaks of philosophers who love the Tartars so as not to have to love their neighbors. The behavior of the estranged—geographically or psychologically—can be nothing but strange. Which is also to say remarkable and precious.

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