Chitlins. I’d rather lick a possum between the ears. However, my saintly mother spent her entire youth popping me with a hairbrush for the express purpose of teaching me to do “nice things.”

I’m watching a Mexican construction crew. They are working on a friend’s house. It is the weekend, and the sun is twelve kinds of brutal.

At noon, they prepare lunch in the shade of a live oak.

The cook for the outfit connects an electric hot-plate to a power cord. He is pan-frying something strange-looking.

He asks if my friend and I want to join them for lunch.

“What’s that you’re cooking?” asks my friend.

“Tacitos tripas.”

I ask what this is, exactly.

The other men giggle.

“I think,” the man explains. “You call them chitlins in Americano. You wanna try?”

Chitlins. I’d rather lick a possum between the ears. However, my saintly mother spent her entire youth popping me with a hairbrush for the express purpose of teaching me to do “nice things.”

So I agreed to try some.

As it happens, I’ve seen some other nice things recently.

For instance, yesterday, in the Walmart checkout lane. I saw a woman with a full cart. She had four

children.

She tried to pay with a card. It was declined.

Her teenage daughter removed a wad of bills and said, “Lemme pay, Mama. I got babysitting money.”

“That’s a REEEEAL good daughter,” said the cashier.

“The best,” said her mother.

Here’s another: I was at a traffic light. I saw a man with a long beard and a guitar on his back. I have seen him before. I’ve even given him money. He’s a nice fella who smells like a distillery.

I saw an arm reach from a car window ahead. The hand was holding a What-A-Burger bag.

The man took it, then sat cross-legged in the median to eat.

Listen, I know this world isn’t all confectioners sugar and honey bees. I know life is hard, I’m no fool. I know hatred is out there, just waiting to beat the hell out of another victim.

Fayetteville, North Carolina—the middle of the night, on the interstate. She was on her way to start a new life in a new place.

She pulled over at a rest area.

It was dark. She was young. A man came from nowhere, forced her into a car, and held a gun to her. He told her what he was about to do to her.

Then, someone kicked open the window and pulled him off. There was a fight. Her attacker was never caught. Her hero was never found. She was unharmed.

“My mom thinks it was an angel,” she says. “I think so, too.”

Birmingham, Alabama—Daryl saw a man walking the highway. He offered the man a ride.

The man said, “No thanks,” and mumbled something nonsensical.

Daryl dove past him the next afternoon. And the next. One day he pulled alongside the man and said, “Please let me do SOMETHING for you, sir.”

The man said, “I’m so scared, dude. Help me.”

Daryl brought him home. He made contact with the

man’s sister, who said her brother suffered from schizophrenia. He’d gone missing days earlier.

In a few hours, the family was reunited on Daryl’s front lawn.

“You saved my brother’s life,” said the man’s sister. “And mine.”

Flowood, Mississippi—on Tuesday afternoons, Mary instructs a gymnasium of women, of varying ages and fitness levels, how to dance hip-hop.

One of her students—an elderly woman—had chest pains.

The ambulance came. Mary rode with her to the hospital. She lied to nurses, claiming to be the woman’s daughter so they’d let her into the woman’s room. She called the family.

One emergency open-heart surgery later, the old woman is alive and moving.

“Anybody woulda done what I…

He talked about one thing in particular that evening: anonymous acts of charity. And for some reason—call it good timing—her husband took the idea seriously.

My mail-lady handed me a stack of mail and said, “Looks like mostly bills.”

Then, she lit a smoke and we talked about a whole lot of nothing. Namely: the weather. Though we do have some things in common. For example, we both have too many bills.

Good talk.

When she left, I opened my stack of mail. She was right. Bills. Coupons, real-estate flyers, a Bass Pro catalog, and a gift certificate for a free chiropractic consult in a bad part of town.

And one thick envelope from Georgia. A three-page letter.

The author of the letter is ninety. She has stunning penmanship. Her name is Louise. I've never actually known a woman by this name. But I wish it would make a comeback.

“I am not good on your Facebook,” Louise begins. “I still write letters...”

I wish more people would.

She’s from the old world. Her husband was a blue-collar. A grease-covered face who smiled at her just right when she was eighteen.

He was rowdy, but he settled down the moment he slipped a ring

on her finger. Rings do that sometimes.

“A minister came through our church," she said. "I brought Joey to listen to a quite captivating speaker...

“And though my husband was less than impressed with Methodism as a whole, the minister made it through to him..."

The holy-roller did more than make it through. He talked about one thing in particular that evening: anonymous acts of charity. And for some reason—call it good timing—her husband took the idea seriously.

At lunch after church, he wrote a Bible verse on the back of a business card—one which he carried in his wallet for many years. It was the only Bible reading she ever saw him do.

The verse:

“...A man who has two coats is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise."

That same…

I don't know who you are or what you're going through today. But I know life is hard. Damn hard. I know that it breaks you, then mails you a bill.

Somewhere outside Montgomery, Alabama—a gas station. A young girl stands in line. She has long woven hair. In her hands: a soda bottle and a bag of chips.

In front of her is an older gentleman. He has weathered skin, ratty clothes, and work boots.

He tells the cashier he wants twenty-dollars worth of gas. He hands his cash over.

“This ain’t twenty,” says the cashier. “It’s only fourteen bucks.”

The girl steps forward. “Here,” she says, laying a five on the counter.

The man tells the girl he can’t accept money from a little kid.

The girl ignores him.

The cashier rings him up, the girl returns her soda and chips to the shelf. Before the girl leaves, she high fives the man.

He smiles and almost ruptures a cheek.

“God bless you,” he says.

Alpharetta, Georgia—his wife cheated on him and ended up pregnant. She left him and moved in with her lover.

Her lover turned out to be a piece of work—he ditched her. She

had her baby alone.

A few hours after she gave birth, the girl called her parents. They refused her—for religious reasons. A few of her friends did the same.

So, she called her ex-husband. He answered his phone. She expected him to hang up. He didn't.

In fact, before they finished talking, he had already piled into his car and pointed it toward the hospital.

He held her new baby, he kissed it. And years later, that kid still calls him “Daddy.”

Mobile, Alabama—her father committed suicide when she was sixteen. She had three brothers, and a mother who was mentally ill.

And a mortgage.

She got a job to support the family. She…

Yeah. I know. This world isn’t all rainbows, roses, and ice-cream shops. It’s a hard place to live. People are angrier than they used to be. Money gets harder to come by. So do smiles.

Sunset. A high-school graduation. Students in caps and gowns take the football field. I’ve lost my wife in a crowd of parents and teachers.

There’s a woman next to me. She is old, curly white hair. She is missing teeth. Her accent sounds like hard work.

Granny points to the field. “That’s my Robbie,” she tells me. “First in our family to graduate high school. Told him since he was born, ‘You can become anything when you grow up.’”

She is so proud, her buttons are under strain.

The announcer calls Robbie’s name. Granny claps so hard she almost fractures a wrist.

“That’s him,” she says. “Can you see my Robbie?”

Yes’ ma’am.

A shopping mall—a young woman. Her son is the size of a sixth-grader. She holds him on her hip.

“Will you PLEASE take him, honey?” she says.

Her husband is a skinny man with tattoos. He places the kid in a large stroller. The kid starts bawling.

The man wheels the stroller in circles, making airplane noises.

The kid quits

fussing and smiles. He hollers something along the lines of:

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The man stops and kisses the kid’s forehead.

“I love you,” he says.

A gas station—a man is walking toward the door. He is wearing basketball shorts and knee-length surgical stockings. There are stitches on his shaved scalp.

A kid out front stabs out a cigarette and opens the door.

When Basketball Shorts shuffles back outside, the young man is waiting. He helps him into his car—a white Ford. He pumps the man’s gas. They talk. They even laugh.

The Ford drives away.

The kid is left, standing at the pump, waving goodbye.

The…

...If you’ve read this far, you might as well know that I believe in something. I don’t know what it’s called, exactly, but I know it’s out there. And I know it's good.

He was homeless. Long beard, weathered skin. I was sitting in traffic. He walked between lines of vehicles at a stoplight. He carried a cardboard sign.

I rolled down my window and handed him all the cash I had—which wasn’t much. Maybe fifteen bucks. He smelled like an open bottle.

He stood at my window and said, “I don’t know you, but I love you.”

Those words. I’ve thought about them for days.

I thought about them when I drove past an ambulance this morning. Two cars looked like crushed Budweiser cans. Traffic backed up for a mile. EMT’s loaded a stretcher.

One paramedic was hugging a child in the median. The kid squeezed him and cried his eyes out. The EMT squeezed back.

I'll bet they don't teach that in EMT training.

Here's another:

After my friend’s wife died, he adopted a cat. It didn't take long before he’d spoiled the animal. He bought an outdoor pet-bed, a food bowl, a collar.

The next morning, he woke to see

three feral cats on his porch. So, he did what any self-respecting man would. He named them.

The following day, two more feral cats.

“I went from being lonely,” he said, “to being Doctor Doolittle. Cats just trust me.”

Last week, I met an old man who sat at the bar of a rundown beer joint. He was watching the band play. He was deaf.

In a loud voice, he asked if he could buy me a beer. I accepted.

He told me he’d totally lost his hearing a few years ago. He woke up one morning and he was fully deaf.

His life changed. It forced him to retire early. It’s been hard.

Last year,…

It’s high-school culinary teachers who give a damn. It's neighborhood barbecues. It’s animal shelters. Old folks. It's volunteer uncles who live in spare bedrooms.

Colton, Texas—they moved Holly’s mother to a nursing home. It was time.

Her mother couldn't recognize her friends or family. She'd forgotten names. Dates. Hygiene.

They placed her in a place they could afford—which wasn't much.

Holly asked her daughter’s boyfriend to visit the center with his guitar.

“I'd heard music could stimulate brain stuff,” she said.

It didn't work. What happened was a group of patients in wheelchairs gathered around the boy's singing. They made requests.

He played for several hours.

“He really got into it,” she said. “It meant so much to me.”

And when he played “You Are My Sunshine,” Holly’s mother wandered into the seating area.

The old woman sat in a chair. She sang along with the others, word for word.

When the music ended, she looked at her daughter and said, “Oh, there you are, Holly.”

“Hey Mama.”

Jacksonville, Florida—an at-risk school. He wasn’t a good high-school student. In fact, he was failing. But he liked food and cooking. His English teacher discovered this.

She bribed him.

“I told him, ‘If you study your butt off, I’ll teach you how to cook.’”

Deal.

She started an after-school culinary program in a local church. She got a restaurant chef to volunteer some of his time. Six local kids signed up for class.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone had so much fun. It kinda gave us something to look forward to.”

It gave them more than that. Today, four of those students are working in commercial kitchens.

Arthurtown, South Carolina—Jason was single. Young. A CPA. He drove a quick car, he stayed out late. But standing at his brother-in-law’s graveside changed everything.

His sister’s husband died, leaving his sister with four kids. She was a mess.

“I had a job to do,” Jason said. “I just knew it. Those kids needed somebody. My sister needed me.”

He quit his job. He moved across the country…

It’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it's always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is wearing a ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks

to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Brooke is my…

Listen, you have no reason to trust someone like me—I'm an average fool with a mortgage and a high-mileage truck. But so help me, this place is more than sex, drugs, and politicians.

Pensacola, Florida—downtown, early evening. He had a long beard and smelled awful. He sat on the sidewalk strumming a broken guitar.

A young girl stopped and asked, “Can I sing with you?”

The homeless man said, “What'cha got, honey?”

Without hesitation, the girl sang “This Little Light of Mine."

This drew a crowd. A big one.

Afterward, the man hugged the girl, and her parents. He told her she reminded him of his own daughter.

Then he cried.

Folks filled his guitar case to the brim.

Forest Park, Georgia—a Burger King, a bad part of town. She wore a gray hotel-maid uniform, standing in line with her toddlers. She counted quarters and dimes on the counter.

Later, when she found a seat, a few teenagers asked the cashier. “Do y'all sell gift cards?”

“Yes," the cashier said, "We have Crown Cards."

They placed wads of twenties on the counter. “We'd like to buy a card for that woman, would you give it to her?”

Then, they left.

Mobile, Alabama—a man at the bar next to me had his face in his hands. His clothes

were covered in paint. The bartender asked him what was wrong.

He said, “My wife's car broke down. It's our ONLY car, and my phone JUST DIED!”

His face busted wide open.

The bartender asked if he knew where the car had broken down.

"Yeah,” he said. "At my wife's school, she's a teacher. I just need someone to give me a ride."

The bartender said, "I can do better than a ride, honey. My brother owns a towing company."

She clocked out early.

This morning, I turned on my television. And I'm sorry I did. Because the America on my screen was not the place I know. On TV: rapes, suicides, stabbings, mushroom clouds, sex scandals, and senseless acts of politics.

Reporters in eight-hundred-dollar outfits talk about mass-murders while wearing half-smiles.

Listen, you have no…

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

It was a classified ad in one of those nickel newspapers. It read:

"Gray Ford. Half-ton. Stick-shift. Some rust. Needs TLC. Sneads, Florida. $800."

My pal called about it. He needed a truck in a bad way. His old one had gone to be with Jesus, his wife was pregnant, and he'd just lost his job.

And in the days before texting, the only way to do business was to use the interstate.

Before we left, he went to the bank. He liquidated his account into a wallet-full of eight hundred dollars.

I gave him a ride. We stopped at a gas station outside Cottondale. He filled my tank, then paid inside. He bought two sticks of beef jerky, two scratch-off lottos.

Thoughtful.

After a two-hour ride we hit a dirt road leading to a farmhouse that sat on several acres of green. Out front: an old man, smoking. He was bony, friendly-faced, tall.

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

“Runs good,” the man said.

“I'll take it,” my buddy answered.

He reached for his wallet. And that's when it happened.

His pocket was empty.

My friend went nuts. He retraced his steps. We tore apart my truck, dug through seats, and cussed. When he finally gave up, he sat cross-legged on the ground. He cried until his face looked raw.

The elderly man sat beside him. He wrapped his arms around him. It had been a long time since a man had done that sort of thing to my pal. He was a fatherless orphan, like me.

When things calmed down, the man's eyes were red and puffy. He wiped his face and said, "C'mon, son, nothin's THAT bad."

My pal didn't answer.

The elderly man removed keys from his pocket and placed them in my friend's hand.

He said, "Listen, that thing's gonna need an…