Finding Kindness in a Big City

Recently, I embarked on one of the more mundane-sounding trips I could have imagined: going to Cambridge for an I-9 appointment. What’s an I-9, one might ask? According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it is “used for verifying the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States.” This was news to me—all I knew was that it needed to be filled out ASAP for my internship over the summer, and a UPS store in Cambridge was the nearest location that offered an appointment when I was available.

The trip turned into a journey when I decided to forgo paying for an Uber and add another hour to save a few bucks. I was pretty sick, but I thought I could handle it. I started off with the approval forms in my hand, walking from Walsh to the Chestnut Hill stop for the 86 bus.

I took out my phone along the way to change the song from one by the Eagles to a more uplifting tune, given the frigid temperature. As I tapped the green Spotify icon, my phone slowed, froze, and—knowing the all-too-familiar next step before it occurred—my screen turned black. I was halfway between my dorm and the bus stop without concrete directions in my hand, and, per usual, I had waited until the last minute to leave. I had looked at the directions a bit beforehand, so I decided to trek onward. I could do this on my own.

I was wrong. When I got to the intersection of Commonwealth Ave. and Chestnut Hill Rd., I didn’t even know what side of the street to be on. I wandered over to one side and stood by the 86 bus sign and must have looked pretty confused, because the short, rugged man next to me asked where I was headed. “Mass Ave.,” I said, “1770 Mass Ave.”

“Alright, ya, take this 86 right here to Harvard, then you could walk the res’ uh’ the way.” I smiled and said thank you, but I was more surprised by than grateful for the genuine kindness behind his 5 o’clock shadow and subtle yet imposing disposition.

After our seconds-long conversation, a women with a purple fleece hat and a matching jacket chimed in. I’d include the dialogue, but it was just a few numbers that were apparently buses and various street names, all of which missed their mark in my navigation-dependant mind. But the content didn’t matter as much as the intent: She wanted to help without provocation.

My two new acquaintances and I hopped on the bus and went on our ways. They sat a couple rows up from me, and every few stops or so would confirm with a quick quip or a head nod that I was on the right path. They got off at their respective stops, each saying goodbye, never knowing my name nor I theirs. It was a simple, genuine kindness not expected in the fast-paced northeastern city that is associated more with confrontation than compassion.

I moved from one cramped bus to another at the Harvard bus hub, not wanting to brave the same frigid air that took the life of my phone, and found myself at a UPS store on the corner of Lancaster St. and Mass Ave. I walked in, gave them my Social Security card, and walked out. The “appointment” took all of two minutes, and I was quickly back outside.

The T seemed a better option this time around, because I was more familiar with it, but that’s not saying much. I got to the red line sniffling and sneezing, and slumped down on the dated bench. Apparently these unsightly noises were more pronounced than I thought, because an old woman wrapped in blankets across from me leaned forward and said something I couldn’t make out. “Sorry?” I said politely as I could.

“Chicken stock. And spices. For two to three days. For your sickness,” she responded with a soft but reassuring tone. Once again, I was taken aback. “Thank you. I definitely will.” She rocked back to her natural position, not saying another word. I couldn’t write it down in my Notes app, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t forget it.

I finally arrived back on campus a solid 2.5 hours later for something completely trivial, but with a new knowledge I was proud of. With its history of racial tensions, angry fans, and frigid winters, it’s easy to peg this city as unfriendly. I’m guilty of the mindset, having been brushed past countless times by suits and purses and yelled at by passersby when either the power of liquor or the group conjured an interjection. But I find solace in the fact that my little journey disproved, at least anecdotally, the notion that Boston mirrors the way the winters feel. Because, as I learned, chicken stock and conversation can bring warmth to anyone in Beantown.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor