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Unpunished

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Ten of us arrive, unannounced, at the restaurant on the terrace, hoping for an outside table.

The staff seats us quickly, then waters, breads, menus, wines, serves, desserts, and espressos us in style. The service is seamless, though during the meal I notice one of our waitresses hurrying by, looking harried. But we gab and laugh and catch up in the sun on the terrace, enjoying the company, the food, and the splendid New England day.

Eventually the waitress brings the check, with amends. “I’m so sorry about the delay. Thanks for your understanding.” Have I missed something? My grilled free-range chicken cobb salad with Maytag Blue Cheese was timely and tasty. We settle the check, chuckling over the usual division of opinion among those who want to split it evenly, those who want to pay only for what they ate plus tax and tip, and those who rushed out early and left an odd, incalculable amount to cover their share. As we waddle slowly out, I hear the same waitress call glumly, “Sorry again about the delay.”

As I pass, I tell her, “Just so you know, we didn’t notice a delay and we had a great time. Thanks.”  She perks up and smiles. When we hit the street, one of my companions catches my eye, saying, “That was a kind thing to do.”

Yes, but it’s true. I don’t know what she is stressing over, but she should know that we had a good time. And yes, I suppose it is awfully nice of me to tell her. Surely, the milk of human kindness gurgles with gusto in my veins.

Next day, I am still in a good mood, thinking about my recently documented Kindness Quotient, as I board my flight home to San Francisco.

I walk down the aisle, radiating good will and positive chi, broadcasting a powerful but silent shalom to my fellow passengers. Clearly, I telepath to them, we’re all in this together. The world is our oyster. I’m very full of myself.

My aisle seat has put me in the final boarding group. The plane is full and most of the overhead bins are already closed, with only a few open, way in the back. I open the bin over my seat, and a plain-looking woman in the seat in front of me calls out, “That bin is full. That’s why I closed it.”

I peer inside from my 6’4” height. A large flat package, lots of air above it. “Looks like there’s plenty of room here,” I beam down at her, convinced that the milk of my kindness will gurgle and flow freely over her cerebral cortex, figuratively speaking. “This man was kind to a waitress,” my smile tells her. “Be nice to him.”

“It’s porcelain, and it’s fragile,” she says with concern. “You can’t put anything on top of it.”

“Can I lift it up and put my backpack under it?” She frowns. The milk magic isn’t working. The waitress thing hasn’t earned me three wishes, or even one. Clare Boothe Luce was right: No good deed goes unpunished. My mood darkens.

Just then another passenger calls out, “Hey my backpack’s in the bin on the other side. It’s smaller than yours. Toss it down to me, I’ll put it down here, and you can have the bin space.” I thank him, make the switch, then settle in, without relish, to my economy seat. My size 13 shoes fill the space under the seat in front of me. With that seat back fully upright, my knees are painfully jammed against the struts of the tray table. I can get a bit of relief by torquing my legs into a bowline knot, but not for hours at a time. If the plain-looking woman, now firmly established in my mind as an EKP, an Enemy of Kind People, decides to recline, I’m headed for an MRI and arthroscopic surgery, if not a complete knee replacement.

A young woman with yellow hair comes up the aisle with a yellow bag and a small, black patent leather carrier. She places the carrier on her seat across the aisle from me; it contains a bejeweled Chihuahua. She opens the bin with the porcelain, asks the plain-looking woman if she can put her bag under the package. The EKP in front of me relents, avoiding the visual daggers I shoot her way as she takes down her porcelain package, then replaces it on top of the yellow bag. She smiles at the yellow-haired Chihuahua lady. Oh, for her you’ll move your preciousss, eh, I mutter bitterly to myself. The milk of human kindness begins to curdle, and I pass the first hour of the flight in fear of kneecapping. But her seat remains up.

Bumpy air keeps the seat belt sign lit for a long time. When the pilot finally releases us captives, the plain-looking woman gets up to go to the rest room. I avoid her eyes, dismayed by now that my visual daggers are strangely ineffective. She leans down next to me as she passes and says into my ear, “I’m keeping my seat up because I noticed you’re tall. My husband is 6’8” and I know what you go through.”

I look up, flabbergasted. She smiles warmly, melting my metaphor-mangling heart. I’ve misjudged her. She understands that putting her seat back will maim me, or pretzel me into a full lotus position, so she chooses not to. I realize it’s the same smile she flashed the Chihuahua lady, radiating kindness and we’re-all-in-this-together. At that second attempt to dislodge her porcelain, she obviously realized it was time to relent, time to share. The milk worked after all.

“You survived!” she says when we arrive in San Francisco hours later. I thank her for being considerate and stagger off the plane, my knees painful but intact, unpunished.

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1 comment to Unpunished

  • Nathie Tieman

    Great story. Easy to read and it does show “the milk of human kindness.” Of course it was lucky for you that her husband was 6’8″. If he were much shorter, you might have required a visit to the hospital.

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