There is a lot I don’t know about this world. I don’t know why society gets colder. I don’t know why families break up, why good people get cancer, or why the self-centered get promoted.

It’s early. I am on the road this morning. I stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s. I know the food’s not good for me, but Egg McMuffins and I have a long history.

There’s a man here with his daughter. They’re in the booth behind me. He talks to her with so much sugar in his voice it’s hard not to smile.

He asks if she had a fun weekend.

She tells him she doesn’t want to leave him and go live with her mother. He tells her she must go. She cries. He holds her.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “We still have weekends together.”

In a nearby booth is a group of Mexican boys. Their voices are happy. Their clothes are filthy.

A jokester in the group attempts a stunt for entertainment value. He leans backward and balances a full cup of coffee on his chin.

This is a bad idea.

A few tables over: a woman. She has a service dog. She doesn’t appear to be blind, but then what do I know?

The dog sits while she eats. A man comes out

of the restroom and pets the dog, but the dog doesn’t even acknowledge him. The animal is all business.

“Pretty dog,” the man says.

The woman answers, “He’s my everything.”

A few kids burst through the doors and stand in line. They are breathless, like they’ve just covered fifty miles on their bikes.

I wish more kids rode to town on bikes.

The man behind me is still talking to his little girl. “Your mother’s here,” he says.

A tall woman walks through the doors. She makes a beeline for the man and daughter. There is no small talk. She’s cool and collected.

They head for the parking lot. The man pops the hatch of an SUV and unloads pink backpacks, roller skates, a scooter, and flower-print luggage. The tall woman shoves things into a minivan.

People have been so nice to us you wouldn’t even believe it if I told you. They have given us food and money and rides and advice and anything we needed, until we got back on our feet, all just random people who didn’t want any credit.

DEAR SEAN:

My family went through some real hard times during the last two years before my husband found his job. It got so bad my kids were eating Chicken Helper casseroles (the store brand) without any meat or oil. My husband and I were taking turns skipping dinners...

Now everything’s good and my husband has this good job…

People have been so nice to us you wouldn’t even believe it if I told you. They have given us food and money and rides and advice and anything we needed, until we got back on our feet, all just random people who didn’t want any credit.

[My husband’s] boss has even given him three different bonuses and what not. To make a long story short, we’ve actually got savings accounts for the first time in our life and it’s all because of kind people.

I was going to see if you have a story about how nice people can be to each other, ‘cause I want something special to

read to my kids tomorrow when we buy our first house.

Have a good day,
I-BELIEVE-IN-NICE-PEOPLE

DEAR I-BELIEVE:

I’m going to tell you about a family. The first thing you ought to know about this family is that they were poor. Deep-fried poor. So destitute, they didn’t have running water. And according to my sources, they cooked meals over an oil drum. The kids had hardly any meat on their bones.

They say the pastor visited their house with money. The father refused the money, claiming things were looking up. But this was a Great Depression. There was no up.

The pastor left a check anyway. And I understand he cashed it before lunchtime.

The first thing school kids noticed were her new shoes. Red leather ones, she loved red. I don’t know what it is about shoes and poverty. They’re the first things…

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

His older brother sang to him. Every night before bed. That might sound strange to you. But it was what they did before bed. Singing.

They lived in a foster home. His brother was more than a brother. He was mother, father, friend, guardian, bunkmate.

Everything.

His brother helped him dress for school, tied his shoes, and taught him to stand up for himself on a playground.

And it was his brother who kept the memories of their mother alive. He talked about the way she used to read stories, make sugar cookies, eat too much ketchup on fries.

His brother was hit by a car while walking home from school. The funeral was small. Only a few social workers, and friends.

The boy was in shock. He quit speaking altogether. He quit caring. His foster parents didn’t know how to reach him, so they sent him to another facility.

He was the youngest in the new place, and found it hard to fit in with the others. He spent time alone.

He looked out his window,

remembering the sound of his brother’s singing voice.

One day, a maintenance man arrived to fix a damaged, leaky ceiling in the boy’s bedroom. He was an older man. The kind of man who couldn’t be quiet even if his life depended on it. A happy fella who talked too much and laughed at his own jokes.

The boy liked him. They made fast friends.

For a full day, the man stood on a ladder replacing sections of damaged drywall, chatting up a blue streak.

The boy started talking, too. And once the child started, he didn’t stop. He talked about football heroes, favorite movies, monsters, dinosaurs, fast cars, fire trucks.

About his late brother.

The old man just listened. He listened so intently that his one-day ceiling repair job took three days.

He let the boy help him work. The kid…

It’s a family, walking along the shoulder of the road. They are Hispanic. A woman pushes a stroller, two young boys walk behind her. None of them speak much English.

Nashville, Tennessee—Nathan is twelve. He is on his way to soccer practice. His mother is driving. He is in the backseat of the car. He sees something.

“Pull over, Mom!” says Nathan.

She does.

It’s a family, walking along the shoulder of the road. They are Hispanic. A woman pushes a stroller, two young boys walk behind her. None of them speak much English.

But this is no problem. Nathan has been taking Spanish in school. Nathan translates. He tells his mother that the family’s car has broken down.

So, his mother calls a tow truck. While they wait, Nathan’s mother treats the family to supper. They carry on choppy conversations in broken tongues. Nathan translates the best he can.

By the end of the night, two families have become friends. And to shorten a long story, today Nathan is a grown man who says:

“‘Bondad’ means ‘goodness’ in Spanish and it’s my favorite word.”

Bueno, Nathan.

Katy, Texas—She is an EMT student. She doesn’t know whether she wants this

for a career. She’s been on ride-alongs, sitting in ambulances, watching emergency workers. She has seen some terrible scenes.

“The first accident I ever saw,” she says, “was so traumatic, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. I just didn’t know if I was cut out to be a paramedic.”

One night, she is walking into a movie theater. She sees an old woman leaving the theater. The woman stumbles on the curb and falls onto her face.

Blood. Broken bones. Hollering. It is a mess.

The EMT in her kicks into action. The staff brings her an emergency first-aid kit. She dresses the woman’s wounds just like she’d been studying. She immobilizes the woman’s neck. She keeps her calm.

“I was cool under pressure,” she says. “It surprised me. I was like, ‘Hey dude, I can actually…

Hate is for sale, and it’s buy-one-get-one-free this week. People are killing people. Crime-scene tape gets strung across innocent porches. Explosions right and left.

Huntsville, Alabama—Enrique is a long way from Guatemala. A teenager. He speaks no English.

He works long hours on framing crews. He lives in a tent behind the gas station with two other boys.

Enrique comes down with a cold. The cold gets worse. And worse. He spends days lying on the ground of his campsite, wheezing, moaning. His fever is boiling hot.

One night, he hobbles through town for help. He finds an insurance office with a light on.

Enrique walks inside and mumbles, “Ayudame.” Then, he collapses.

One man drives Enrique to the hospital. Then, the man gives Enrique a place to stay—for two years.

And well, that was a long time ago. A lot of people have helped Enrique throughout his life.

They helped him get his citizenship, for instance. They also taught him English. They helped him through school. They helped him through nursing school, and clinicals.

Most of those same people, and fellow nurses, were at Enrique’s wedding.

Morgantown, West Virginia— Cindy is a recent

widow. She is driving the interstate, on her way home from work. It’s late.

She sees a girl, walking the shoulder, pushing a stroller. She wears a fast-food uniform.

Cindy stops. “Can I give you a ride?” she asks.

The girl refuses and says she doesn’t mind walking.

Cindy sees her again the next morning. This time, it is raining. Cindy offers the girl and her baby a ride.

The girl tells Cindy she was kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend, she has no family, and no place to stay.

The last few weeks, the girl’s been living in a friend’s garage, sleeping on an air mattress. Her baby has been sleeping in a cardboard box.

Cindy considers giving money, but it doesn’t feel like enough. So, she brings the young woman home.

The next day,…

Here is a woman, I’m thinking, who’s got a room bursting at the rafters with folks. There are wrong orders to fix, grumpy customers to pacify, and employees who want to bend her ear.

The Cracker Barrel in Prattville is busy. And loud. Inside, there isn’t much in the way of elbow room. There are heaps of people eating dangerous amounts of biscuits.

And I am trying master the wooden Triangle Peg game.

The object of the game, of course, is simple. Leave the fewest pegs remaining on the triangle as possible.

Let’s say, for instance, you finish a game and only one peg is left. This means you are a NASA-level genius. Two pegs; you are moderately clever. Four pegs; your parents are first cousins.

Whenever I play the Triangle game, it’s not pretty.

I love it here. But then, I have a long history with Cracker Barrel. I’ve eaten at Cracker Barrels from Junction City to Gainesville. The food suits me.

The overhead music always has steel guitar in it.

Today, an elderly couple is sitting next to me. The man is skinny. She is frail. They are shoulder to shoulder.

The man is wearing a hospital bracelet. His entire lower

leg is in a brace. His face is bruised purple. He is resting his head onto the old woman’s shoulder.

“I love you, Judy,” he says.

She just pats his head and scans the menu.

On the other side of the dining room is a table of paramedics. They wear radios on their shoulders. Their eyes are drooping. It looks like they’ve had a long night.

I eavesdrop on their conversation, but can’t make out much. All I hear is: “I’m ready to go home.”

These men are modern-day saints.

Behind me is a young family with five kids. Four boys are tall and thick. One is not.

One child is small and slight. He has a device in his ear and a device mounted on his head. He stares at his older brother’s plate and says, “Can I have…

Earlier, I spoke to a parent who remarked: “This has been the hardest time of our lives. I wish I could take it from my son, I wish it was me who had cancer, but it feels good to see him happy today.”

Pensacola, Florida—a bunch of children played kickball against the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department.

These kids are undergoing cancer treatment, but it hasn’t affected their spirit.

A little boy steps to the plate and kicks a rubber ball with every ounce of leg muscle he has. The crowd goes wild. His mom goes wild. I go wild.

Earlier, I spoke to a parent who remarked: “This has been the hardest time of our lives. I wish I could take it from my son, I wish it was me who had cancer, but it feels good to see him happy today.”

Today is a good day. And it was a good game. The score was close.

The Sheriff’s department only lost by 39,000 points.

Huntsville, Alabama—Aria was 26. A hardworking mother trying to earn her GED. She had a full-time job to tie down, two kids, and suppers don’t make themselves.

Her homework load was overwhelming. Solving for “X” wasn’t exactly a priority.

She posted a request for help

online. A college professor in West Virginia answered her. He volunteered to help.

He tutored her over the phone. Sometimes, they would stay on the phone for three hours at a time. Their friendship took off.

The weekend before her test, he bought a plane ticket. He met her at a coffee shop with flowers.

They spent two days prepping for her exam. She passed; he took her out to dinner. Today, she’s working on her bachelor’s degree.

They have two kids together.

Spartanburg, South Carolina—a man stopped four lanes of traffic to save a dog. Traffic backed up for a quarter mile.

He squatted onto his heels and spoke in a soft voice. Cars lined up, stretching toward the horizon.

The dog finally came.

He used his belt for a leash. The dog was old. No tags. He…

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

His real name doesn’t matter. So let’s call him Steve.

Steve made a mistake. He went to prison. The details aren’t important.

He was twenty-four, illiterate, and he felt like a worthless creature. At night, he’d lie awake thinking of people he’d disappointed. Namely, his mother.

Steve made friends with the chaplain—who discovered that Steve couldn’t read or write.

The chaplain taught Steve the basics. ABC’s, cursive, grammar. In a few years, Steve went from reading Doctor Seuss to Walt Whitman.

He enrolled in a GED correspondence course. After that: onward and upward. It took years to earn college credits through the US Mail.

He graduated with an associate’s degree.

And when the chaplain baptized Steve in a feed-trough, Steve rose from the water and hugged the chaplain.

Steve told him, “I wish I was hugging my mama right now.”

“This hug is from her and me both,” said the chaplain.

Steve’s mother passed while he was inside.

Years later, our hero joined civilian life as an older man. The world

felt like a foreign place. He found a job on a concrete crew. He grew his hair long because he could.

At work, Steve made friends with a twenty-six-year-old man who we’ll call DeRonn.

DeRonn and Steve grew close. They had deep conversations at work. DeRonn admitted that he’d once wanted to study art, but never did.

“Why not?” asked Steve.

“Because,” said DeRonn. “I dropped out at sixteen when my girlfriend got pregnant.”

A few days later, an envelope appeared in the front seat of DeRonn’s car. Inside was a little cash, wrapped with a rubber band, and a note which read:

“That’s to help pay for art school.”

That was two lifetimes ago. DeRonn is not a kid anymore. And he’s not sad, either. And as it happens, he did finish school. His degree…

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

Birmingham, Alabama—A Friday. Chadley was in a good mood. He would be twenty-one in a few days. To celebrate, he would be leaving for Orange Beach with his friends after work.

His job was in a shoe store. It was the sort of place that sold everything. His daily tasks included: stocking, manning a register, and cramming shoes on the stinky feet of bratty kids.

He couldn’t wait to clock out.

Earlier that morning, his father had given him two hundred dollars as a birthday gift. It was going to be the weekend of a lifetime.

A man walked into the shoe store. The man was dressed in rags, he had a long beard. He smelled like a billy goat. His shoes were falling apart.

The fella had crumpled dollars his hand. “Some lady gave me this money,” the old timer said. “I’d like to buy me some shoes.”

It wasn’t enough to buy a pair of flip flops.

Young Chadley looked at the man’s feet. They were bloody.

He bought

the man two pairs of shoes—expensive ones. Then, he bought the man’s lunch. Chadley spent nearly all his birthday money. Then, he tucked his remaining six dollars into the man’s hand.

Our hero never made it to the beach that year.

Panama City, Florida—a man saw a woman in a Home Depot parking lot.

The lady was silver-haired and frail, loading fifty-pound bags of fertilizer into her trunk.

He offered to help. He placed them into her car and nearly ruptured L4, L5, and S1. Then, he followed her home to unload them.

Hers was a rundown single-wide in a mobile home park. She had an overgrown lawn and moldy siding. Her porch was full of flowers that needed planting.

“Who’s gonna plant all those?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Me, I guess. My husband used to help me…

Anyway, I wish I had something magnificent to finish this with, but I’m not a magnificent kind of guy. I’m John Q. Average who is obviously coming down with a super-cold.

It’s raining cats and buffalo. I’m standing in line in the hardware store, waiting to check out. I've had a nagging cough since this morning. And, I am in a lethargic mood—somewhere between “unenthused” and “living dead.”

I hope I'm not getting sick.

There’s a girl who joins the back of the long hardware store line. She's Hispanic, holding a baby. She's buying one item.

A man lets her cut ahead of him. So does another woman. And another. And ten others in line.

Soon, the girl is at the head of the line, paying the cashier.

“Tank yoo,” she says to everyone.

Everyone waves and says something like, “No problem.”

I leave the store. I jog toward my truck through the rain. My wife calls. She wants me to pick up milk, eggs, and a bottle of vitamins.

"Not the cheap kind,” she explains.

She wants the kind that require a reverse mortgage.

The supermarket—I see a man in a wheelchair. He is in the self-checkout lane.

The man is missing both legs and one arm.

He stuffs his groceries into a gym bag. A woman is with him. He refuses to let her help him.

When it is time to pay, he reaches into a pocket and removes a credit card. He swipes, then places the card between his teeth and taps a digital screen.

The cashier inspects the man’s receipt, then says “Have a nice day, sir.”

“Oh, I definitely will,” the man answers.

And he seems to mean it.

After the hardware store, I drive across town to get a haircut. The lady who usually cuts my hair is named Julia. Julia is an artist. The only one who can tame this unruly red mop.

Julia is out with the flu.

The woman who trims my hair is new, from North Alabama. Her…