In the 1987 gangster epic, The Untouchables, the infamous bootlegger Al Capone, brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro, tries to downplay his well-deserved reputation for violence.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” Capone tells a group of reporters. “And we used to say ‘you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.’”
We already know the on-going horror show that guns have inflicted upon this country, but lately I’ve been amazed at the healing power of a just a kind word.
I was in the PATH station in Hoboken one recent morning adding money to my Metrocard when one of the station employees, this very pleasant African-American lady, approached me to see if I needed any help with the machine.
“No, thanks,” I said, appreciating her concern. “I’ve got this.”
She walked away while I slipped my card into the appropriate slot and waited. And waited. And waited. The Metrocard machine made all kinds of clicks and squeaks but refused to return my card. Oy…
I looked around for the station agent and waved to her.
“It turns out I really do need your help,” I said, rather lamely.
She headed in my direction and as soon as she arrived, my card popped out of the slot.
“You bring me luck!” I said
I hadn’t given any thought to these words; I just kind of said them. But this lady made a very pronounced sigh as if she were deeply touched.
I don’t envy her having to work in that train station and, knowing New York-area commuters the way I do, I seriously doubt she hears many kind words in the course of a day. So if felt really good to cheer her up even for a brief moment.
Hell, I thought, that was pretty easy.
In fact, it’s so easy that I’ve decided to look for every opportunity to say something nice to people.
And then a few weeks ago I was on the receiving end of a much-needed kind word.
I was stumbling onto the X-27 bus with a laptop on my shoulder, a knapsack on my hip and the New York Times falling through my hands.
Aisle Be There
I was tired, worried about my job, and pretty much fed up with life in general.
As I walked down the aisle in search of a seat, what seem like several tons on advertising flyers slipped out of the paper and littered the floor.
Great. Now I’ve got to try and pick that crap up while holding onto to all the other junk I’m carrying.
“I’ll get it,” said this middle-aged man in a nearby seat.
“Hang in there, buddy,” my fellow passenger said with refreshing sincerity.
That was it. That was the sum total of our interaction. But something about it really touched me.
No one else on that bus offered to help me; no one even acknowledged my presence, opting instead for the Big City Stare, where you steadfastly refuse to look at any unpleasant occurrence even if it’s happening right on top of you.
I’ve resorted to this urban blindness myself on many occasions, so I am certainly not passing judgment.
I’m just so grateful to that man who chose to actually see me and offered to help.
I looked for the man when I pulled into my stop so I could wish him a good day, but he had already gotten off.
But I’ve been replaying his line in my head whenever I feel pressured and it’s been quite effective in helping me calm down.
Hang in there, buddy.
I’ve looked at kind words from both sides now and I must say there’s nothing like giving or receiving a verbal thumbs-up.
It's nice to think that these two incidents are related, that what goes around really does come around, and I was being rewarded for my minor act of kindness. But you shouldn't expect a reward for being nice to people.
To paraphrase another gangster flick, The Godfather, I would advice people to leave the gun and take the kind words. You’ll be surprised how far you get.