I was on a rare trip outside — in the back of an Uber, travelling across town to run an errand that I could no longer avoid. My driver was wearing an N95 mask, and so was I. We’d agreed to leave the windows down for the trip.
As usual, I was too tall for the backseat — my head occasionally hitting the roof when the car’s suspension couldn’t keep up with the decaying Los Angeles roads.
Someone said to me you can tell America is in the shit because the roads are decaying and nothing’s being done about it. I believe them. Still, good to have a front row seat for the apocalypse.
My phone started ringing. I was initially confused, as it appeared my street address was calling me. I wondered if my house had become sentient, ringing to tell me to get back home; that I was missed. Then I remembered that when I was trying to get this apartment, I didn’t know my landlord’s name — so I’d just put the address into my phone instead of a name.
The address that was calling me now.
“Hello?” I yelled down the line. I yelled for two reasons. Firstly, we’d gotten onto the freeway and there was a significant amount of breeze flooding into the car. The other issue was that my landlord is mostly deaf. Any conversation with him is a yelling match, my confusing New Zealand accent never helping things.
To make things easier, whenever I talk to him I affect my idea of an American accent — adding a nasally drawl to everything; making every R roll for as long as humanly possible. It sounds stupid, but it works — it’s already helped me communicate with various Americans on the phone.
“HELLO!” I yelled down the line.
“Are you at home right now?” my landlord enquired, gingerly.
My heart sank. The house had flooded. There’d been a fire. Something bad had happened. All because I ran this fucking errand.
“I’m not in, uh — I’m actually out for the next few hours”. I made sure to I roll the fuck out of “hour”: “I’m actually out for the next few hourrrs”.
“Oh.” He sounded crestfallen.
“Well, I’m calling because if you look out your side of the building, into that big tree outside, there is the biggest stork I’ve ever seen,” he told me.
“It’s huge. You must see it.”
It took me a few seconds to clock that this phonecall wasn’t a disaster. It was my landlord calling me to tell me there was a great big bird outside my window. He knew I loved birds, and he was calling with bird news.
Because my landlord is one of the kindest people I’ve met during this pandemic.
He’s been my landlord for about two months now. He lives close, just down the hall — yet like so many people we brush up against in life, I know very little about him.
Partly that’s because conversation is so hard. If you witnessed the two of us bumping into each other in the hallway, the aftermath consists of me talking loudly at him in my fake American accent, repeating words until I’m understood. The fact we’re both usually wearing masks doesn’t help, as there’s no room for lip reading.
“Thank you for the birrrrd call! Sorry I’m not therrre to see it.”
I know he’s older in years — in his 70s, maybe? — and fiercely loyal to keeping the ageing building in tip-top shape. He’s always tinkering: Replacing some old tiles, or badgering away in the garden keeping the plants at bay. He moves gingerly, aware of his years — and yet he sports the haircut of a 20-year-old hipster: Shaved at the sides, long and smartly brushed on the top.
One thing he knows about me is that I love birds — God knows when I yelled this particular fact at him, but it stuck. He remembered. There’s a knock at the door, and when I open it, I find this outside:
“David, thought you might find this article interesting.” He’d delivered me a magazine called Nature Conservancy. This article was about the resilience of nature, including bird life:
“Gouldians look like they were dreamed up by a 5-year-old with a penchant for rainbows and color-blocking. Sunshine yellow bellies, deep purple breasts, green backs, teal necks and rumps, and red, yellow, or jet back faces.
Like many species in this arid landscape, the finch’s fate is tied to fire. But as the fire cycle has shifted to larger, hotter bushfires, the effect on Australia’s wildlife — including Gouldians — has been severe...”
I was struck by the fact the article was about one of my favourite birds, but also at the kindness of someone who was essentially a stranger to me.
My landlord had no particular reason to drop me this magazine, or ring me to tell me a large stork was eyeballing my apartment. But he did, and it was a reminder to me that on a planet consumed by horrible people, there are also some really good ones.
I messaged my friend a copy of my landlord’s note. “I love his penmanship,” she replied.
She was right: We won’t ever see that kind of penmanship again, either. It’s keyboards and phone screens — angry fingers typing line after line of bullshit, no one checking to see if what they’re typing is even true.
Perhaps it’s time for a moment of context. An explanation for why I am gushing a little, sounding increasingly like the liberal beta cuck I’m regularly told I am by avatar-less people on the internet.
Because for all the hope the Webworm comments section gives me — my social media and email inbox is a regular reminder of the wider situation we find ourselves in.
Take this tweet I made as Omicron raised its head in New Zealand. A fairly inoffensive tweet. Ridiculously inoffensive, actually:
The replies? A minefield of chaos.
Then there’s my inbox. I wanted to share this email that just arrived, which was in response to my piece about a New Zealand politician who keeps lying.
“I’ve never read so much contrived crap from a journalist in all my life.
Your journalistic powers appear to have shrunk to the level of repetition of what you’ve heard from Fauci.
Obviously you know nothing about this issue and you piece may as well have been something straight out of [New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern’s spin team.
One day soon you’re going to wake up and find everything that the real scientific experts have been shouting from the rooftops and that Voices for Freedom have been making available to the public is fact.
The best thing for NZ would be if we had a whole plane load of Majorie Taylor Greens. I can’t wait to see your reaction to the return of Trump, just around the corner.
Wake up and smell the stench mate. Actually it’s probably too late.”
“A whole plane load of Majorie Taylor Greens.”
“Wake up and smell the stench mate.”
The email was signed off by “Chris”.
Like so many of these emails, it ended on a kind of gleefully vague, sarcastic note:
“Actually, it’s probably too late.”
It’s with that background hum in my inbox — and in the world — that I am viewing the Gouldian finch, the stork in the tree, and the perfect penmanship. Just the latest in an array of small kindnesses from my landlord.
When I contracted Covid back in December — on a day that particularly knocked me out — I opened my door to a fresh note:
“Thanks for the heads up about your “Dance with Delta”. Let me know if you want any supplies. I will have some cold and flu relief outside your apartment door soon.”
The cold and flu bottles arrived as he’d promised they would. My “Dance with Delta” had gotten a little easier. I’d been coughing for the last two days, and now I coughed a little less.
“I have toilet paper to last through 2022”.
In a world full of toilet paper hoarders, I think I found a good one.
I don’t mean to sound like Oprah, but I think his actions have reminded me that small things can go a long way. When I see another apartment-dwellers delivery left outside the building, I bring it inside so it won’t get roasted in the sun, or damaged in the rain. I’m taking the time to look neighbors in the eye and offer a hello when I see them, as opposed to blindly wandering past, lost in my own selfish thoughts.
And sometimes I get to help my landlord out, too.
In all of this, I have no doubt his kindness extends towards others in the building, too. There are little hints at this all over the place, including the quizzes he leaves in the foyer:
“Does it involve a bridge that has come… too far?” I offered in a slip of paper, tucked in the old candy tin he’d left for answers.
A reply was slipped under my door the next day.
I have no doubt others in the building got replies too, each a subtle reminder that we’re all in this together. All in this pandemic that’s made us so insular and cut off and alone.
I’ve only known this man a few months. I want to learn more about him, and where he came from, exactly. I want to know who his friends and family are. He has a cheeky sparkle in his eye, and I have no doubt he’s gotten up to some shit. I bet he partied in LA before the roads started falling apart.
In a year of humanity becoming increasingly unhinged — “Anti-vaxxers are touting another new Covid ‘cure’ – drinking urine” — this one guy has reminded me there’s a small chance it might be okay, too.
Because in that penmanship is a reminder that as bad as it gets — and as terrible as we are to each other — we’re also capable of slowing down and being there for each other. Even for that weird tenant who insists on putting on a terrible American accent every time he yells at you.
PS: What kindnesses have you experienced lately? Or is it just me?