I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big. Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels as good as a hug. This month alone, I’ve spoken at a handful of places and I have received roughly—this is no exaggeration—five trillion hugs from people.

Including two hundred grade school students this morning.

Hugs do something to a person. After ten hugs, a fella starts to feel warm inside. After two hundred, his heart is raw. Right around four hundred, he forgets every evil thing he ever saw or heard. People need hugs. And by “people,” I mean me. I love a good hug.

I also love baseball. It’s a beautiful game. While I write this, I am listening to a radio. The Milwaukee Brewers are doing battle with the Dodgers. I want the Dodgers to eat mud.

And, I love football. I was born during the third quarter of Coach Bear Bryant’s farewell game. My father was watching the hospital-room television during the exact moment the doc smacked my hindparts.

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big.

Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

But not in small towns. In small towns, Little America is still alive and well.

Which reminds me: I love little things. I love them even more than I did when I started this article.

The small Chevette I learned to drive in. The small coin I bought at a gift shop atop the mountain where my father is buried—I carry it everywhere. I like little trucks from yesteryear. Little farmhouses. Little billboards painted on the sides of barns.

Little upright pianos in my aunt’s den—the kind she only plays at Christmas.

Speaking of holidays, I love them, too. Each and every one. Christmas, Turkey Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

Last year I spent…

In the food court is a merry-go-round. There is a single-file line waiting to board the carousel. First in line is an older man. He has white hair, and he walks with an uneven gait. A young woman is holding his arm.

It’s a sunny day. The Birmingham Galleria Mall is busy. There are hundreds of people beneath the tall atrium. They have places to go and things to buy.

I am here with my wife, who is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy.

Shopping for jeans with your wife is a dangerous gamble. In the Western world, the leading cause of divorce is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy with your wife. Ranking second is chewing your food too loud.

It goes like this:

Your wife locks herself in the dressing room with eighty-seven pairs of jeans. While she tries them on, you, the husband, go to the designated detention area with other husbands.

Intermittently, you wife emerges from her room, modeling jeans that look exactly like the jeans she wore when she entered the store.

Then, she glances at her reflection and begins speaking in foreign tongues. She asks things like: “Does this chino inseam appear too constricting?”

And: “Do you

think these boot-cuts too are too roomy on the calf region?”

We husbands have no idea what our wives are actually asking. This is why we often mumble. Because we know our words don’t really matter when it comes to blue jeans. Our wives will make their own decisions.

We know that by the end of the day our wives will have at least two emotional breakdowns, and likely leave the store without a single pair of blue jeans because they hate blue jeans and they wish blue jeans would’ve never been invented and they hate anyone who wears blue jeans including members of Congress, anyone below age thirty, and Cher.

And instead of buying jeans, our wives end up getting something like a “cute little cardigan that was on clearance.”

Then everyone goes out for ice cream. The end.

The best thing a guy can do…

He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walks with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.

He was tall, lean, and young. When he approached me, he hugged me. Then, his mother hugged us both. A three-person club sandwich.

He must’ve been a foot taller than I was. His voice squeaked with adolescence. His skin was freckled. He had a long neck.

He recognized me.

“I liked your books, sir,” he said, through a nervous stutter.

Sir? No way. Such titles are reserved for men who wear penny loafers when fishing.

“I read all your books when I was in the hospital,” the boy said. “I kinda got to know you, and it was kinda like we were friends.”

His mother tells me his story. It’s a long one, and it’s not mine to repeat. He has the determination of a saint, and a long road ahead of him. He suffers more than other kids his age. And he might not survive his struggle.

Before he walked away, he told me: “I list ten new things I love every day. I write’em on

paper. My dad told me to do that.”

He tapped his finger against his head. “Gotta keep on thinking ‘bout good things I love. What kinda things do you love?”

I was rendered mute. I couldn’t seem to find words. I noticed a large moon-shaped scar beneath his hair. I tried to say something, anything, but I didn’t.

He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walked with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.

On the off-chance that he is reading this:

1. I love Mexican food. In fact, I have had a lifelong love affair with it. A Mexican man I used to work with with used to make a dish called “chilaquiles verdes.” Before work, he would fry corn tortillas and scrambled eggs, then crumble enough…

So if you’re still reading this—I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t—I wish I had more to offer you before you start your day. These stories, plus a dime, won’t even buy you a lukewarm cup of coffee.

I saw a boy with only one hand pitch a baseball in Nashville, Tennessee. I have never seen anything like it. Not before. Not since.

I sat beside his mother in their backyard and watched.

“He don’t even play on a team,” his mother said. “Truth be told, he’s not into baseball. He’s really into Star Wars.”

It all started when his little brother needed help batting for Little League. It was Big Brother who learned how to pitch by watching YouTube. They practiced in the backyard.

The kid turned out to be a good ball player. His mother says this is because he believes he can do anything.

“I mean he REALLY thinks he has no limits,” his mother says. “He’ll try anything.”

You can see it on his face. He is everything I hope to be in when I grow up. And he’s not even twelve.

I asked the boy if I could write about him. He said, “Don’t write too much.”

Then he smiled. “And

can you make my name be Luke Skywalker? Then I can read it at school and everyone will be jealous!”

Fair enough.

Then, he and his brother pretended to sword fight, in front of me.

A few months ago, I watched a man ride a bike half way up Pike’s Peak mountain in Colorado. The man was seventy-two. There was a line of traffic behind him while he pedaled.

His calves were shaped like slabs of limestone. His skin looked like old wood. He rode with a clot of younger cyclists and held his own.

When I talked to him afterward, he smelled like sweat, onions, and a retired jockstrap.

He started biking at age sixty-six when his wife left him.

“I was stuck in the house,” he said. “Couldn’t find the willpower to go anywhere. I was just eating crap,…

No, it’s not eloquent, and there’s no major point to it. But the older I get, the more I believe in common things. And in common people. I believe they have more meaning than I once thought.

I got a haircut today. My barber was a short man with white hair, and a thick Cajun accent. His friends call him “Spike.” I could hardly understand a word Spike said through his accent.

He laughs too much. I love old men who laugh too much. And he is a good storyteller.

When it was over, I thanked him for the haircut.

He shook my hand and said, “Se pa aryen, Meh Sha.”

He translated: “Don’t mention it, boy.”

Then he taught me how to say “thank you” in the French-Cajun tongue.

“Bien merci,” he explained.

So I tried it. “Bee-YEN mare-SEE, sir,” said I.

This made him laugh until he turned purple.

“Keep trying, boy!” he said.

Next, I went to Cracker Barrel for early lunch. While I ate, my phone vibrated. My wife texted me a hardware store list that was longer than an unfurled roll of Charmin toilet paper.

So, I shoved bacon and eggs down my gullet and went to pay. In the

cashier line there was a girl with a scarf wrapped around her bald head. We talked.

Her name is Julia, she is eighteen, from Bowling Green. She is in town enjoying the beach for a few days. This is the first time she ever saw the Gulf of Mexico. Ever.

“I can’t actually go in the water,” she explained. “Doctor says there’s too much bacteria, my body can’t deal with that.”

But she’s here just the same, and that counts for something.

Before she left the restaurant, her father bought her a straw sunhat. She modeled it for her family. She is one of the most beautiful girls I ever saw.

Enjoy the beach, Julia.

The hardware store—I saw at least fifty people I know. It was a regular homecoming parade.

I can’t go to the hardware store without…

So the news is blaring on a television in my room. It’s been playing the same sort of thing for five days. Men in suits, shouting at one another. Footage of one man punching another. Swearing. Pharmaceutical commercials. Politics. Pop music. The Kardashians.

A nice car stalls in traffic. Horns honk. People shout. Four Mexican men leap out of a dilapidated minivan. They push the broken down vehicle from a busy intersection.

In the front seat: Jocelyn. A seventy-three-year-old woman.

When she is out of harm’s way, one of the men says something in English:

“You need a ride, ma’am? We’ll take you wherever you wanna go.”

They drive her home, across town. She offers to pay for their gas. They decline. She offers to feed them. They accept.

Years later, Jocelyn dies. At her funeral, Jocelyn’s daughter sees a group of unfamiliar Mexican men.

They tell her the story I just told you.

Chase. He is middle-aged and clumsy. He has the idea to repair his own roof. Bad idea. He climbs on the house while his wife is away.

He loses his footing. He trips. The shrubs break his fall—and his leg.

A neighbor’s fourteen-year-old son sees the accident. The boy calls 911, then performs first-aid. The kid even rides to the hospital inside the ambulance with him.

When Chase awakens,

there is a boy, sitting at his bedside, mumbling a prayer.

“Called your wife,” says the kid. “I found her number in your phone.”

That boy is an adult now, and and he is one of Chase’s closest friends.

There’s a girl. I’ll call her Karen. As a child, she was abused by her father. Karen leaves the details out when she tells me the story. Karen left home when she was old enough to drive. She drove six states away and tried to forget her childhood altogether.

And she did. One divorce and two kids later, things were looking up. She had a job managing a cellphone store, a nice apartment.

Her aunt called one day. Her father was sick. Stomach cancer was eating him from the inside out.

“Why the hell should I care?” was Karen’s first…

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…