There are good Samaritans, but mostly there are people who can be kind and who happen to be there when you need a little help. There are holy people—the good Samaritans who go out of their way—but mostly, there are people who do their jobs and sometimes, because of our desperation, those jobs make them look like good Samaritans. Like the driver of the tow truck who “rescued” us in Waverly, Louisiana, who said, “I am the undertaker. You don’t want to see me, but you know you need to see me and you are happy I am here.” He made me laugh. That was kind. He also said, “It is amazing what two heart attacks, a divorce, the loss of fifty pounds and the selling off of all your businesses can do for your health.” He does his job. He loaded the van, let us pile into his truck and drove us to Monroe to pick up a rental and leave the van at the dealership. “It is a tough job,” he tells me as he recalls a conversation he had with a man who asked him, “Why do you do this job, man? The hours are horrible, it is twenty-four seven on call, and it does not matter what the weather is like…” “It is a tough job,” he replied, “but the tips are great.” I tip him well. He does his job. He is kind. He is a good neighbor. Good neighbors do their job, they are decent, you give them what they deserve and they say thank you. They are there when you need them and they try.
Three hours earlier, while speeding through three states along the I20West, I said to myself, “There is nothing much to say about this journey across this country—the landscape changes ever so subtly as we pass through the different states, but mostly, it is a long high way, an occasional sighting of local color and little else.” Then the strange sound starts in the front wheel, and then we are stranded on the road and then we meet a real-life Louisiana man, and it is clear to me that without this, I might as well have flown from Columbia to Dallas, Texas. Truth is, everyone has been kind. Even the Hertz Rental lady at the impossibly parochial Monroe Regional airport smiled, took my card, pointed out the car and just let it all seem easy, non-crisis-like and manageable.
So I can now quote, fittingly, Tennessee Williams with all his Louisiana connections—himself, a stranger here: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” or was it, “I have come to depend on the kindness of strangers”? No matter, the point is made.
I do know that this is how a poet collects images even while living from day to day. Life is so ordinary, and then you face the extraordinary and you busy yourself trying to make that as ordinary as life should be. Maybe that is the heart of the poem. For me, my job is to make poems. My job is to do so as a good neighbor. My job is to be the undertaker or the plumber or the man who tows wrecked cars, but to do so with poems. And if I can do this, just do my job with kindness and consistency, then I will be as happy as my tow truck friend: "I was the black sheep of the family. After Vietnam, I came and did things.... One day a woman comes into the office and says, 'I been knowing you for years, I seen you...' she is a black woman. 'I seen you working your ass off in here like you ain't got a penny to rub together. Why you do that when you know you are doing just fine?' I tell her, 'Cause I love it, that's why." So we go on.

Originally Published: June 9th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. June 12, 2007

    Mr. Dawes,
    Thank you for your retelling of this good neighbor experience. I had similar experiences driving across country through the south, and it was something of a surprise to me as an African American woman. Friends worried if I'd be safe driving alone. But despite my own small misgivings and the apprehensions of loved ones, my sense of the good (aka neighborly) in people was truly affirmed with every small and big kindness.