The Kindness of Strangers

John Scalzi, science fiction novelist and blogger extraordinaire, had a piece a couple of weeks ago about how his manuscript creates jobs. It’s a wonderful article, one I highly recommend you read, if only for the behind-the-scenes glimpse into how a book goes from writer’s brain to reader’s brain. Scalzi sums up the publishing landscape well by pointing out what’s obvious to us writers, but perhaps not so obvious to readers – putting out books is a team effort.

As I write this, my new book has been on the shelves for a little more than a week. It’s official release day wasn’t until March 1, but it was in bookstores for a while before that (copies were leaking out all over the country.) I’ve spent the last week doing radio, television and print interviews, and signings. Five signings, to be exact. By the end of the day Friday, that number will be seven. In two weeks, the tour will be over and I’ll have done thirteen readings/signings and attended two conferences, and will be on my way to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to teach a couple of workshops for the Tennessee Mountain Writers. Today, I’m in Knoxville, TN and Forest City, North Carolina, doing my thing.

Tiring, yes. Nothing compared to the unreal touring schedules of the big dogs, but enough to wear me out. But it’s exhilarating too, because there’s one thing every single signing has in common – the kindness of strangers.

With Scalzi’s formula in mind, I couldn’t help but think about how many people, most relative strangers, have contributed to the success of this book. Store managers, CRMs, publicists I’ve never met but on the phone, reporters, the folks who work at the Harlequin distribution center in Buffalo, New York, Librarians, fans, bloggers, Twitterers, Facebookers, and of course, the non-strangers – friends, family and spouses – I can’t begin to cover them all. Add in Scalzi’s list, editors and assistants and interns and marketing and publicity and sales and management and buyers and accounts…. It’s kind of mind boggling, really, when you think about the months you spent in utter isolation creating your magnum opus, and how far-reaching the work ultimately is.

Even if one reader buys the book, just one, the cycle has worked.

And if you can imagine that cycle recreating itself for the 170,000 odd books that are released each YEAR…

Yeah. And they say the book is dead.

I had all this floating in my mind because the kindness that’s been extended to me over the course of the past week has been overwhelming. I’ve received gifts from fans – Brenda from Tennessee brought me a stunningly beautiful Vera Bradley tote, replete with glasses case, travel tools and oodles of pens and paper. She said it was an early birthday present. It was much too generous, and I’m going to treasure it always.

And then there was Beth, in Lebanon, who came in all out of breath and so happy she hadn’t missed me because she’d been very busy helping birth a foal from one of their prized Tennessee Walking Horses, a champagne filly they named Yorks J.T. Ellison. Yes, I have a horse named after me. My jaw was literally on the floor. But there was more – they also have Yorks Taylor Jackson, and are planning Judas Kiss and The Pretender. Tickled me to pieces.

Then there was Shirley Holley and Mayor David Pennington in Manchester, who rallied up the folks who helped me with the research for the book and hosted me at the Manchester Library for a signing.

Overwhelming kindness.

I’d already planned to write this post, was composing it in my head when I was running errands Wednesday. The usual haunts – Staples (to make copies of my copyedit that thankfully landed on my desk when I had three off days to address it!) Walgreens for more miniatures for travel, the post office, the laundry. After Staples, I pulled up to Walgreens and there was a small, wizened old woman out front, begging. Now, homeless folks begging aren’t something we normally get out in the burbs. I was shocked. And as per usual, I had no cash on me. I said sorry and went into the store. Bought my things, walked out. She hit me up on the way out too; I apologized again and got in my car. Sat there for a full minute trying to figure out what to do. I finally shrugged it off, I had no cash, and what was I going to do, go to the ATM? I went to the post office to mail my copyedits, and realized I’d left my credit card at Staples in the copy machine. As I went back, I couldn’t get this woman out of my head.

Sure enough, someone (a kind stranger again) had turned the card in. I went back to the post office and decided I wasn’t going to be a hypocrite. What kind of person would I be, talking about the kindness of strangers on my blog, if I didn’t walk that walk myself when faced with someone in need?

I spent five minutes agonizing over whether to get her coffee or hot chocolate, knowing that it was cold, she was old, she needed energy and ingesting sugar is a good way to do that. But would she want her coffee with cream? With sugar? Should I keep them separate and let her doctor them herself? Should I dump them in and take my chances? What if she was lactose intolerant? In the end, I went with the hot chocolate. With whip cream. I know, it’s not much, but outside of taking her home with me, it was my best-case solution. It was snowy and cold and I figured she’d appreciate something hot.

By the time I got back to Walgreens, she was gone.

But as I drove away, I spotted her in the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. She turned when she heard the car and my heart felt full to bursting. I pulled beside her, put down my window, and handed her the cup.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Hot chocolate,” I replied, beatific smile in place.

She shook her head. “I don’t drink milk or chocolate products,” she said, and turned away.

The cliché came to me immediately, – hey, beggars can’t be choosers. But that’s her right. She could have been lactose intolerant, or diabetic. Or, she just wanted money. I, on the other hand, wanted to make myself feel good. I felt guilty that I was warm in my car, with money in my bank account and a roof over my head. I guess she taught ME, huh?

When I used to work in downtown D.C., we kept Burger King coupons in our pockets for the homeless. They’d accost me as I walked down the street, and I’d hand them the coupon – they could redeem it for a free burger. A good deal, I thought. I quickly learned they didn’t want the food, they wanted money for alcohol and drugs. Sad, that. I’m hoping that my little old woman wasn’t out for a quick high, but that’s probably the case.

Like Rob, I’m tired and overworked and a bit rambly, so I’ll end it here.

This is an ode to those who make an effort, whether we realize it or not. Thanks to everyone who’s made my tour thus far so damn much fun, and for those who quietly help those less fortunate, in word and deed.

Any good stories about times you’ve tried to help people who don’t want help???

(Forgive me for being sketchy today, I’m in a car, and I get naseaus trying to type on my iPhone whilst in motion. But I’ll have several down moments, and I’ll pop in then : ))

Wine of the Week: Anything from Chile. After the recent earthquake, much of the wine was spilled, the racks broken, and general havoc wrecked throughout the Chilean wine industry. Estimates say 12% of the 2009 vintage was lost. So show your support, and ask your local wine store for a few suggestions. Chilean wines are excellent, you can’t miss with the cab, or the caremere.

20 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers

  1. Jake Nantz

    Man, I wish I could be there to support you, JT. Unfortunately, I’m teaching and/or doin’ the afterschool help-the-student thing until 3:30 or later, and Forest City is Hell-and-gone from where I live. Know I’m there cheering for you in spirit!

    As far as help being turned down, I haven’t had anything past the usual students who don’t want to do any more than what they are already getting by with, but I have had a colleague and close friend of mine hit something like that. She has a student who came to school wearing the same clothes three or four days in a row. His backpack was decrepit, and he would eat lunch in her room every day because, on some occasions, she would have extra that she couldn’t or wasn’t planning to eat, and he might actually GET some lunch. He was also staying almost every day to get help from her, even if it were for a different class, because it was easier than what he had to go home to.

    She felt so horrible for that kid, and decided that, meager teacher’s salary or not, she was going to do something about it. She and her parents went out and bought him several outfits that he could mix and match (jeans, t-shirts, a decent pair of shoes or two) and a nice winter jacket, because he didn’t have one. She also bought him a new backpack to replace the old one. From what I understand, she went to a TJ Max or something, so she was able to get a lot for less.

    The mother was FURIOUS, told my friend she needed to mind her own damn business, and that she wasn’t comfortable having some white woman spending so much time and getting so attached to her son. Now my friend is happily married and just wanted to help a kid who obviously needed (he ate, it seemed, maybe 2 days out of ever 5, nevermind the clothes). Funny thing though, as angry as she was over my friend helping her son, mom didn’t return any of the clothes or anything.

    I guess pride’s a funny thing, but that story always bothered me on a couple different levels.

  2. JD Rhoades

    Any good stories about times you’ve tried to help people who don’t want help???

    I could write a book.

    I try to live by the wise words of Barbara Billingsley’s character in the move AIRPLANE: "Chump don’t want no help, chump don’t get no help." But sometimes it’s tough. I’ve been practicing law for 21 years this year, and I still can’t get over the fact that people will completely disregard what I advise them to do in favor of some crack-brained course of action they think is a good idea or that their slack-jawed pinhead ex-convict buddy came up with.

    Good luck on the tour, love. Forest City’s way the hell and gone in the western part of the state, so it’s doubtful I’ll make it. As luck would have it, I was out that way LAST weekend. But have a great signing and a great rest of the tour, and here’s to much success for the book!

  3. Eika

    I haven’t had anyone refuse help yet, but, I haven’t been in a position very often where it would’ve. Still, I try to live by one high school teacher’s example: keep a loaf of bread, three cans of tuna, and some non-refrigerator-needed jelly where it may be needed. She’s a high school teacher, so it makes sense. I’ll just figure out my own way to be prepared.

  4. Robert Gregory Browne

    Great post, JT. Unfortunately, in order to try to help someone and have them refuse that help, I would actually have to get out of the house once in awhile. Maybe next week I’ll offer to buy drinks for everyone and you’ll all turn me down.

    Then again, maybe not… 😉

    This isn’t a refusal story, but many years ago when my son was probably about eight years old, we walked out of the Pantry in LA with our doggie bags in hand and my son saw a homeless guy huddled against the wall near our car. Rather than be afraid, my son looked as if he was about to cry at the sight of him, so — after asking us if it was okay — he went over and gave the guy his leftovers.

    I’ll never forget that moment. It was the kind of moment you write into a movie to define one of your characters. And it tells you just about everything you need to know about my son.

  5. Chuck

    JD, love the Airplane reference! "Slide me a porta thru the gahden on the burnt side!" (TRANSLATION: "I’d like a well-done porterhouse with side salad please.")

    Hi JT:

    I don’t have a story, but wanted to simply say congrats! You are doing a fantastic job of promoting your book and brand, and I hope to see you this year.

    We’ll chat soon!



  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    The story that springs to mind for the ‘need help but won’t accept it’ comes from a long time ago when I was working as a yacht delivery crew. We were taking a catamaran round the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall, on our way to Portsmouth, I think it was. We came across a French boat that was becalmed – a lot of them did not have engines fitted – and offered assistance. They threw us a line so we could tow them. Unfortunately, we’d had engine trouble, and the rope they threw was on the side where we’d lost the engine, making our boat very difficult to steer. Eventually, via numerous hand signals, we dropped their line and came round on the opposite side of them, indicating that this would be easier for us to tow them. At this point, they started to panic that we were going to claim salvage rights, and refused any further help. "We like to row!" they shouted, paddling furiously into one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world…

    You do your best. Ho hum… ;-]

    Hope you’re having a ball with your tour. Knock ’em dead, kiddo.

    And having a horse named after you? That is truly cool!

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post – I cannot wait to enjoy that exhausting schedule myself!

    When I was nineteen years old living in Santa Cruz, broke as hell, working at Jack in the Box (and I’m telling you it ain’t easy being a vegetarian and working at Jack and the Box) I ended up buying one two many bean burritos at Taco Bell and I offered a homeless guy one of the burritos and he said, "Not if it has onions in it."

    Whenever I have a nice restaurant meal and I have leftovers I make sure I get a plastic fork to take with me, so when I give the food to someone on the street they can eat it with a little dignity. Here in L.A. we are inundated with homeless people and it’s really hard to determine how to be charitable. My experience is that most folks are looking for cash for alcohol or drugs. In Santa Monica they have this big, metal dolphin sculpture that you can put money in and the money goes to support shelters and food programs for the homeless.

    A few weeks ago I gave a little old lady a dollar and a couple hours later I saw her daughter pick her up in a brand new Mercedes and drive off with her. You just never know in L.A. Maybe the lady was a drama student doing some Method acting as a homeless person. Maybe they just needed a little help on that car payment.

    Anyway, congratulations on the success of The Cold Room – you deserve it, JT. I couldn’t be happier for you!

  8. Allison Davis

    JT, too many stories come to mind, a homeless guy I got a settlement for (JD will appreciate this) — he got beat up by thugs working for a property owner when he slept there at night — , got him a room, talked to the landlord, set up his VA benefits, got him cleaned up and he was back on the street in six months after filling the room with junk, hookers and cats (yep) with no cat box. After that, I actually gave him one more chance — he was showing me letters from his mother, who was old and lived in Montana. So I bought him a one way bus ticket and brought it to him so he could go see her and help her out. The bus ticket person at Grayhound called me and said that the guy was trying to cash in the ticket….I cut him off after that, and he couldn’t understand why. (Yeah, I know it was one way, but come on, it was $300.)

    My first trial when I was a law student and working for a solo lawyer, he brought a breach of contract action on behalf of a blind panhandler suing another blind panhandler who handled her money, and bought properties in Oakland, collected rents and gave her the proceeds. We had the deeds but the handler claimed the repairs ate up all the rents so he never paid her. We had to "show" the deeds to the witnesses by describing them — it was amazing. Annie was her name and she used to beg outside the Emporium (when it existed) on Market Street. She had four properties. I learned there was an entire network of blind panhandlers who owned properties and collected rents, among other investments. At one point when Annie was on the stand she commented that opposing counsel was making her nervous with his pacing back and forth while he was questioning her. We won the trial.

    Awesome story about the pony…great to know you touch people’s hearts with your writing. Those great moments we get at our desk translate to those bonds with readers you have only met once.

    Ok, back to the law.

  9. Louise Ure

    My usual handout to the homeless is a pair of wool socks. Nobody has turned them down yet.

    But the other day a homeless guy on the street asked me for a cigarette. I handed him one. "Ewww, menthol." He walked away.

  10. JT Ellison

    Hey all! In the mountains of east Tennessee about tocross into North Carolina. It’s gorgeous. But the interstate is closed, so we are going through the little towns. My
    coverage is spotty at best, but thanks for sharing all your stories. xoxo

  11. tess gerritsen

    take care of yourself and stay healthy on the road. Treat yourself to sleep and food — and both in abundance.

    As for trying to help folks, I’ll never forget the time my hubby and I walked out of the late showing at a movie theater here. The employees had quickly closed the building down and the building was dark as we walked to our car. As we were about to drive away, I spotted a little silhouette sitting on the curb. It was a kid, no more than twelve years old, with Harry Potter-like glasses. And he was sitting all alone. We stopped the car and asked him if he was okay, and he said he was waiting for his dad to come pick him up after the movie.

    There wasn’t another soul around, it was cold, and I didn’t like that situation one bit.

    I asked him if he wanted to wait inside our car. He, being a sensible kid, said no. So we parked the car beside him and just sat and waited. Finally, about ten minutes later, the boy’s dad shows up and they drive away.

    To this day, I wonder if the kid (and his dad) thought we were child molesters, just waiting to pounce.

  12. kit

    Hi JT,
    good luck on the tour…hope you meet some really great people.
    No higher honor, than to have something named after you….congradulations.
    and as far as homeless people….in our area we don’t see to many. I guess ND isn’t a state to be homeless in. there are some in the bigger towns.
    But I really like the DQ coupon idea and the wool sox….
    there is a project i did take part in called the UGLY QUILT project…it’s basically a bedroll made out of some extra fabrics, bedding,and neckties.

  13. Alafair Burke

    Good luck on tour. I start that process in a couple of weeks myself so I’m happy to hear there’s kindness out there.

    In my experience most people are like us, thankful for every piece of assistance and human connection we can get in this life. A few years ago, I started trying to do at least one small, good deed a day. I’d help someone with their groceries at my building, give directions to a lost tourist, etc. One time a woman was struggling with both a suitcase and container of Starbucks cups. When I offered to give her a hand, the initial look on her face had me preparing to be maced. But within a quick second, she realized some friendly(ish) woman with a funny looking dog was actually just helping.

  14. judy wirzberger

    Monday is coming. Hurrah!
    I like to do things randomly, like go through Taco Bell and give the gal an extra $5 for the car behind me. Fun to drive away and watch the next car secretly. However, my 8 year old granddaughter was trying to give her 4 year old siste advice. Kaley, the four year old, rolled her eyes saying, "I’m not a child, Megan."

    I’ve just finished Judas Kiss and two cups of hazelnut cream coffee – No more excuses not to clean the kitchen. Wait! I forgot I haven’t read 14 yet.


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