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This afternoon I went to another teacher’s house for our Saturday tradition of watching an 80’s movie with dinner.  After the movie ended we spent at least an hour watching videos of pranks that people choreograph for Just For Laughs.  In my favorite clip, an actor asks a stranger to watch her car for a minute and then runs off.  Another actor comes by on crutches and drops the armful of books he’s carrying.  The kind-hearted stranger rushes to help him, and while his back is turned on the car, the prank crew replaces the hood of the car with a crumpled hood and a NASA satellite.  The stranger is bewildered both by the appearance of the satellite and then the pair of suited men that march in to take the satellite and disappear.  It’s all laughter and relief when the joke is revealed and the stranger  gives a happy wave to the hidden camera.

It made me think that these pranksters are abusing the better nature of mankind.  These strangers stop what they’re doing to do what they can to ‘help’ while the pranksters have a good laugh at their expense.  No harm generally comes of it, but sometimes they believe that someone really is going to be hurt, and you see them clutch their chests in panic.  What if someone had a heart attack because they really thought this man was going to fall off a ladder that was actually magically suspended?  However, the ultimate purpose of these videos is to make people laugh and give them a shared moment of frivolity and silliness.

Going home this evening, I looked around at the people surrounding me.  I grinned, thinking that any one of them might have something devious and hilarious up his sleeve just waiting for the right unsuspecting person to walk by.  I walked by a woman crouched at the foot of the stairs who had her head buried in her hands and seemed to be crying.  I’ve seen this kind of thing on more than one occasion, and I’ve even photographed it.  It’s strange to see someone looking absolutely miserable while everyone walks by them as if they weren’t there.  I always have the urge to stop, but then I guiltily convince myself that I have the excuse/helplessness of not being able to offer aid because of the language barrier.  This time, I wondered if it was just a joke–a trap to lure in a kind stranger while a man with a video camera smirked ten feet away.  I wondered if the guy playing the guitar and asking for coins was really a famous musician with a camera trained on him to see if anyone in the crowd recognized great art when it was disguised as poverty.  I wondered if the crowd around me had all been briefed ahead of time to start dancing in unison or start a stampede.  Would I trust a stranger if he asked me for help?  Would I even understand him?

As I walked to my next train, I noticed two men in front of me doing something with their arms.  I thought it was one of those ‘man slap’ things guys do together, but when the man struck me across the throat and face I realized that it was neither an accident nor a friendly gesture.  The man was walking through the crowded metro station with his arms outstretched to hit the people around him.  The other man had turned around to stare at this jerk in disbelief.  I felt physically sick as I recalled the man’s touch and how slowly his hand had pulled across my face in a mocking caress, how his finger had lingered on my lip so that I could taste his skin and feel his touch even an hour later as I sit in the safety of my own kitchen.

This was another man engaging strangers.  His purpose wasn’t to bring smiles or give a little spontaneous joy to someone’s day.  His purpose was to hurt, humiliate, confuse and frighten the people around him.

Several years ago I started making a list of the random acts of kindness strangers have shown me.  I keep the list in my camera case, and I look at it every now and then to remind myself not only that people are good, but that it is fully within my power to make a difference for other strangers.

We all see strangers every day.  How do you want them to remember you?

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