A true act of kindness

by Vasana Chinvarakorn, The Bangkok Post, July 26, 2004

Bangkok, Thailand -- Their gestures to each other were brief, austere. But the memory of the scene is etched in my mind - and makes me smile when I think of the pair.

It was a busy Monday evening of traffic-as-usual. I stood at the intersection, waiting, waiting, waiting for the pedestrians' light to turn green. Continuously, speeding cars filed by, honking, spewing exhaust fumes, fouling the humid air - the purgatory of the stationary sidewalk crowd seemed to last forever.

But thanks to this daily delay, I was able to witness one of the nicest things about fellow humans.

All of a sudden, the man in front of me turned sideways. My eyes followed his move. He was holding an old cranky bicycle in one hand, while the other hand dug into a plastic bag in the bike's front rack. It produced a crinkly twenty-baht banknote.

My eyes followed his move. What was he trying to do? A few metres from me stood another man, someone who looked so ordinary he would not have "existed" (in my limited world of perception) had the bicycle owner not initiated the event.

What both of them did next proved an old adage: We should not - cannot - judge others by their appearance. There is beauty, and dignity, in the little things that we may have glossed over.

The first man extended his right hand, with the small banknote, to the second man. No words were uttered, but it was apparent he wanted the older man to take the money.

A spectator now, I saw why. The old man had that pitiful look - a dirty blue outfit, the smudgy, peppery hair - of someone who clearly belonged to the lowest of the low echelon.

How the second man responded made me, an observer, feel humble. He shook his head, refusing the sudden charity.

Why? The "giver" himself did not seem to be in a much better state. I recognised him, as a "regular", who earned his keep by playing the violin in that area. People walked by and around him, some dropping a coin or two in the bag on his bike but most - including me - speeding by, preoccupied by our own errands and thoughts.

But the violin player - and his well-worn instrument - continued to offer the eerie yet soothing music to everyone. When he plays, he is an islet of tranquillity at the centre of the madding crowd.

Now I heard him speak for the first time. He had a tired voice, but it suggested kindness. The violin player said, "Please take it, uncle, so you can buy yourself a bowl of noodles."

The old man dug his hand into his trousers pocket. He produced a small coin. I stole a glance - the familiar, silver five-baht coin.

The message was clear. The elderly man did not want to be a burden to the violinist. The 20-baht bill would mean a full meal, a stomach not left hungry. But then what could the old man find to eat with that five-baht coin?

The violin player repeated the same sentence. And again. Finally the aged man gave in. The expression on his face was indescribable as the violinist passed the banknote into his wrinkled hand.

A moment of quiet gratitude. The old man shuffled away.

I tried to look ahead. The traffic was still in full motion. We were still waiting. My eyes inched right again, and the back of the violin player came into focus. His shirt was clean but threadbare. There was a patch; the repair job was frankly poor stitching.

The light turned green at last. The violinist hopped on his bicycle and raced away. I crossed the street, unable to catch up. On the opposite side, a few metres on, I spotted a small flower on the pavement.

The wind must have blown it off a tree in the neighbourhood. The pink petals had already started to wilt, but against the hard granite, this small and fragile thing seemed to smile at me. And I felt blessed.