I lived in New York for a spell and during these long summer nights I get nostalgic for life in the city that never sleeps. Certain sights, smells, and tastes evoke memories of long meanderings through Manhattan’s busy streets, favorite haunts, and the electric energy of everything happening all at once.

My New York City is one of “just made it” trains and “barely missed it” connections. Of speed walking and people gazing on too-crowded sidewalk cafes and brownstone stoops. Of looking twice at a face on the street because it reminds you of someone you once knew. Of pausing mid-stride on Park Ave when you realize that maybe it was. 

It’s the New York of every language and color in all their broad brush strokes. Of anonymity in a sea of endless faces. Of a sense of loneliness even when surrounded in a packed train. Of feeling like an outsider but taking comfort in the fact that everyone else feels like an outsider too.

My New York is one of complicated relations between people and endless war between rats and pizza chains. It’s a city of contradictions where things move too fast and time moves too slow. Where time is money but there’s never enough time to spend it. A city of hopes and dreams too close and too far away. A city of impatience and sentimentality. A city of memories. 

Dining out recently one evening, far from New York and surrounded by too many strangers in too close quarters, I was struck with one such memory.

On my last visit to New York I was meeting a friend for dinner at a newly opened restaurant in the heart of K-Town. The restaurant was a two story affair with mismatched, yet comfortable armchair seats, and tables seated so close together you were practically sharing your banchan with the strangers on either side of you. 

Upon arriving first I was ushered upstairs to our table for two. Seated next to another pair I couldn’t help but indulge in every New Yorker’s favorite pastime of eavesdropping under the auspices of reviewing the menu. They were colleagues talking in the vernacular of the young and ambitious – chasing that promotion, comparing their standings amongst their peers, disparaging their competition, angling for the next win and hustle. I lost interest immediately.

Once my friend arrived and we had placed our orders, our conversation started right where it had left off despite the now thousands mile long distance that separated comma from period. Not too long after we had started, a stranger sat at the adjacent table for two. He ordered a bottle of soju on his own but asked the server what her favorite dish on the menu was. She referenced the gamja tang, a hearty, delicious potato stew, a dish that he’d never seen or tried in his life but he’d gamely take her word for it. 

Our stranger was as inconspicuous as a mid-thirties, white man dressed in a baseball cap, plaid flannel, and trendy ripped jeans dining alone at a Korean restaurant in the heart of Manhattan could be. He could have been a tourist from the midwest, a businessman from the south, or catching a bite before heading home to Williamsburg. And it was a small enough restaurant where a stranger in a big city was able to spend an evening in contemplation and indulge in a little eavesdropping of his own.

Conversations with my friend are always introspective and nourishing for the soul, running the gamut from frivolous to philosophical to spiritual. Amongst other things, we discussed seeking balance amidst life’s demands and distractions, about the importance of faith and being Christian in an increasingly divisive culture. About being able to engage with the world and appreciate the depth of its rich, human connections and experiences. About joy, suffering and the pursuit of joy in suffering. About goals and motivations, communication and conflict, and books in between. And as we laughed and reminisced, feeling both light and full as only the best conversations are wont to do, we encouraged one another to continue seeking God everywhere, even in the hard places, even in a city like New York.

As our dinner wound down, subjects and bowls explored to their full, our stranger was also preparing to top off his own meal. As he started to stir I noticed out of the corner of my eye a conspiratorial whisper to the server and a subtle gesture towards our table. There was murmured conversation, two billfolds, a light smile, and just like a New York minute, he was gone.

When it came time to pay our bill, our bewildered server confirmed what I already suspected. Perhaps our gentleman stranger appreciated what he heard that evening because in addition to picking up our conversation he had picked up our tab. 

He’d mentioned no motivation, rhyme or reason. Simply a kind gesture from a stranger in a strange, sometimes kind city. And as my friend and I left the restaurant we were gratefully reminded of the world’s seemingly random acts of goodness and magnanimity. As well as the importance of paying such kindness forward. 

Thank you, kind stranger. I don’t know if you’re a Christian and maybe felt refreshed hearing something familiar in a place that may have been unfamiliar. Or maybe you aren’t Christian, but were moved by some unseen force compelling you to listen a little closer that evening. Maybe your day was all business and there’s a kind of life that breathes in when you talk about what truly matters, what truly remains. Whatever it was, I hope it stays with you.

I don’t know if you were passing through my town or I was passing through yours. But in that beautiful moment I was profoundly reminded of how God orchestrates all things and is ever present, even in a city of contradictions where it’s easy to be surrounded by all of humanity yet still feel so alone.

It’s those human, humbling moments when I remember that the world is still kind. That people still do unexpected things, and that God is all around us. And that “my” New York City is one of the best cities in the world.

Kathryn is the founder of That’s What She. After years spent roaming through the wilderness she met Christ and hasn’t looked back. An avid lover of storytelling and prone to run-ons, she hopes to embark on this journey with all of you and see the goodness of God in the land of the living (Psalm 27).

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2 Replies to “Stranger Acts of Kindness

    1. Thanks for reading Christopher! I hope you have ample opportunities to live life to His fullest!

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