A man is standing at my store counter with a question, and I know nothing about him except his ruddy cheeks and the desperate expression slipping out from under the smile on his face. He wants to know where there is a nearby mechanic, a cheap hotel. Hotel? I think. I should hope so. If you were left outside in this cold, it’d surely be the death of you. A broken-down car in an unfamiliar city makes you more reliant on others than you might be normally, dependent on the slender chance that there is still goodwill on Earth.
I’m familiar enough with Stephen King to know that, on the one hand, the young man stranded at a bookshop in the biggest snow of the year could be a serial killer, and that on the other hand (if he doesn’t dismember it) he might just turn out to be a decent human being. The exact location of my mental leap between quality customer service and earnest assistance still eludes me. Why I even consider going above and beyond in a situation like this remains a mystery. Still, at some point, you hope something like hospitality recognizes its own; otherwise, you wind up dead at the hands of your own naïveté—or sleeping in your cold, broken-down car.
A bookseller fields inquiries all day, many resembling a personal advertisement:
Single word in title seeks author surname for playful rendezvous.
Third installment in wizard series seeks fourth in same.
Frazzled individual desperately seeking restroom for serious relationship.
Hypoglycemic couple seeks decent café.
Addressing each customer’s needs and complaints can, at times, make me feel gullible, a pushover. I am overly trusting of individuals with a nice smile and a claim of buyer’s remorse. I will happily direct you to the restroom or nearest eatery best fitting your hankering for burgers-but-not-the-greasy-kind. There are days I feel as hospitable as a welcome mat.
These days, winter wraps around our quaint bookstore just south of the Canadian border. A pale, gray sky bewitches the county and snow makes its bed in our streets. Hailing from Idaho, where snow, thick and deep, is a seasonal staple, I know it is important that my car is equipped to hazard the weather to work. There would be no other way to make even the short, three-mile journey if not for studded tires. Not on those steep streets, anyway.
She didn’t wait for me to open the screen door; she just welcomed herself in, hopped inside my house like the sky was raining fire. Almost two hours before closing, a young man enters the store and proceeds to browse. About my age, dark hair jutting down from the brim of a beanie, and handsome, layered against the weather like a pro in Polarfleece and wool. He lingers in Travel, making forays into Transportation and into Cooking. He spends considerable time on his phone, muttering with hurried expressions. Off and on it rings and he answers. (For today’s consumer, this is practically standard procedure.) From my counter, I watch people wander with their faces bent toward their phones. The consumer actively consumed.
Just before we close at nine, the young man approaches my counter. “Do you know of a mechanic nearby? Or maybe a motel I can stay at for cheap tonight?”
I offer the Yellow Pages for a mechanic reference, adding, “Your best bet is probably to find a place downtown. There are a few there, and at least one mechanic, but it’s a good hour’s walk from here.”
He turns through the phone book, looking up somewhere above my head, thinking. “That’s not so bad.”
“If it weren’t snowing. Or if the buses were running.” Maybe I am not the most helpful customer service representative.
He shakes his head and tugs at his collar, stuffed with a scarf. He removes his cap to reveal a mess of matted hair. “I was supposed to meet a friend up in Vancouver tonight, but that’s not going to happen now. I figure I’ll stay here tonight, get my car fixed in the morning, and just head back to Seattle.” He steps away to make another call. Polite, at least, not to yammer into his cell while standing there like I don’t exist.
I wouldn’t spot a con if it showed up in a rouge pleather mini-skirt and bleach-blonde extensions. It did once, in middle school. A rap on my front door and there stood Miss Hot Mess, smeared makeup and frazzled highlights. She didn’t wait for me to open the screen door; she just welcomed herself in, hopped inside my house like the sky was raining fire. Before I knew it, she was crouched on the floor, popping up to check out the window for “thegoddamncopstheycalledthegoddamncopsonme!” I might have been a pubescent boy living the dream, home alone with a long-legged bombshell on her knees in my living room, but I quickly deduced this would be nothing but trouble. The neighbors across the street pointed the police toward my parents’ house.
“You’ve got to go,” I told her. At once conflicted, I felt an urge to help, to mediate some sort of resolution with whomever she was disputing; but, then again, I was 13, briefly harboring a person of interest. Nothing serious came of it; she left only a few minutes later. But I remember feeling on the verge, in those brief moments, like this woman was herself the vortex, threatening to suck me into whatever disaster she’d found herself in, with the sympathy of a killdeer and gravity of a black hole.
Hospitality, I think, markets itself wrong, all kindness and open arms to make people feel as though they are lying down and being used. Hardly so passive and impotent, it’s likely the most dangerous virtue, requiring vulnerability in both parties, giver and recipient. Moreover, it is most prevalent in the most severe circumstances. Kathleen Norris notes desert hospitality and Midwestern kindness in her memoir Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, a place where the temperature ranges from 110 degrees above to 30 degrees below zero, saying, “Here, more demonstrably than in many other places, we need each other to survive.” The stark contrast between inhospitable badland and unfettered grace toward the wanderer clarifies a truth we often forget in our staunchly independent lifestyles elsewhere.
Yet, Norris continues, “Hospitality to the stranger does not necessarily translate into greater love for the people you live with every day…when the tempests erupt in the small-town teapot, they are so violently destructive.” Seems the hand that welcomes you in when you need it might just as easily turn on you if you stick around long enough. Need is vulnerable and often fosters resentment; meanwhile, the sycophant and racketeer make easy prey of anyone so ready and willing as to offer. With all the risk involved, it’s a wonder anything like hospitality ever survived natural selection.
The young man in the bookstore doesn’t appear to have the trappings of self-destructive mayhem. If anything, he looks the part of a college student, limited discretionary funds and disappointing excuse for reliable transportation. As far as I can tell there are no police on his trail, which is enough for me. When he returns from his phone calls, I offer him a place to stay. “My roommates and I have a lot of space. Nothing fancy, just a couch and some blankets. And my car’s got snow tires, so I can get you there, too.”
Days when the con was a personal interaction almost seem like bygones. An old-fashioned worry to the point of almost being quaint. I do not make a habit of inviting strange men to stay the night. In the moment when true hospitality manifests itself, psychosis and suspicion seem to feed off one another. Who’s crazier, the man who asks another to sleep over, or the man who accepts? You hear of hitchhikers robbing and killing their benefactors; you hear of drivers leaving murdered drifters in the ditch. You read in papers of strays and vagabonds graciously accepting the generosity of their fellow man, only to steal their identities and valuables in the night. Modern hospitality requires a great deal of trust, invites without precedent. It is compassionate as a monk and blind as a bat. Still, this man seems so pleasant and friendly, I’m unsure whether I display even a shred of monastic virtue, by comparison.
The man smiles. “My name’s Stephen.” He offers his hand and we shake.
After the store closes, I take Stephen to my house, where I live with six other guys. We stay up talking for a bit, and when we go to sleep, I lie in bed and let the gravity of it all wash over me. My mind is restless. Lying in the next room, on my couch, a wafer-thin wall between us, is a man I met exactly four hours prior. Anyone can be polite, even charming, for infinitely longer. John Wayne Gacy was a politician; four hours is child’s play.
So many sociopaths popping up on social networking sites, dating services, identity thieves, and credit card frauds, personal ads vaguely resembling desperate predators; days when the con was a personal interaction almost seem like bygones. An old-fashioned worry to the point of almost being quaint. If I were to lie awake at night fretting over the security of my personal information on the internet, I might never sleep; but, truth be told, should the codes and passwords fail and my identity and money fall into the hands of a criminal, all might eventually be put right again. If a criminal in my house tears me limb from limb and then steals everything in my possession, the putting right would be decidedly less simple. The thought that finally puts me to rest is that a talented Mr. Ripley hoping to take advantage of an unsuspecting good Samaritan would be chagrined to find himself in the drafty living room of a thriftily furnished college house. Besides, if he was a serial killer, he’d have to kill all seven of us and I’d probably be first. I’d be dead before I woke, anyhow.
In the morning, I drive Stephen back to his car, the entire way paved with his endless gratitude. Almost overkill, as though he doesn’t realize his opportunity to steal, kill, and destroy has long since passed. He locates a mechanic and I never hear from him again. Before we part ways, he says, “If you’re ever stranded and need a place in Seattle, give me a call.” I still have the number. I wonder what he’d do if I called.
The kindness of strangers is a funny thing; it breeds its own so as to make you wonder: Who’s kinder, the man who puts a drifter up for the night in the dead of winter, or the man who refrains from braining and befouling the other’s corpse in the dead of night?