Thank You “Sticky Buns” Jeff

Random violence makes the news because it is rare, whereas routine kindness doesn’t make the news because it is so common. — Matt Ridley, author of “The Rational Optimist” from his essay Why Is It So Cool to Be Gloomy? (Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2018)

“You’re not going to eat that, are you?!” Peter asked me and Paul, looking at the plate of sticky buns in front of us. It was about 7:00 am and we were packing up our tent, getting ready to leave the campground for another long day of cycling, when an overly-friendly man we had met the night before came over with a plate of sticky buns. (His name was Jeff and he was traveling cross country by himself in an RV.)

“I’m guessing you boys are hungry, so I made you some sticky buns,” Jeff said and put the plate on the picnic table near us. He hovered around us, making small talk as we continued to pack up, and when we were done, he wished us good luck on our cross-country journey and retreated back into his RV.

The truth is we were starving. We were in Pennsylvania, already several days and hundreds of miles into our post-college-graduation cycling journey that had started back in Connecticut. We were easily burning more than 3,000 calories per day and all we had eaten for dinner the night before was a can of pork and beans.

“You’re not going to eat that, are you?!” Pete and I were from Brooklyn, New York, where we were brought up not to trust strangers, especially chatty male strangers who travel alone and like to bake sticky buns. “We don’t know what he put in there,” Pete argued. “Could be rat poison in there!”

Paul was from Ohio. He had already finished one of the sticky buns and was licking his fingers.

“I’m not eating it,” said Pete shaking his head. He turned his back to the sticky buns and climbed on his bike. I looked at Paul, my canary in the coal mine, and he was still breathing, silly grin on his face — and reaching for another sticky bun.

My mind and upbringing were screaming at me “Don’t eat it either!” but my stomach was screaming even louder. I ate one too, and for the next hour, as we cycled through the Allegheny Mountains, I waited for my heart to stop and for the world to turn dark, but neither happened. We all lived, and every day that followed, as we cycled against the headwinds, we would crack ourselves up whenever one of us, when we least expected it, yelled out “You boys hungry for some sticky buns?”

Another memorable experience from later in the journey was cycling through the Utah desert, a single car passing us and pulling over a few hundred feet ahead. We see the driver get out of the car and open the trunk. I immediately think “He’s going to take out a shotgun and kill us!” We are literally in the middle of nowhere, nothing but dry heat and desert brush all around us. If you’re going to kill someone, this is the place. But as we get closer, we see that the driver is an elderly man, and there’s no shotgun in the trunk but a styrofoam cooler filled with ice and sodas. “I forgot to take my heart medication,” he tells us when we stop, “and you boys look thirsty, so I decided to pull over.”

Three young cyclists and an old man, drinking Cokes in the high-noon desert. Then the old man drove off, and we cycled on.

We experienced many acts of kindness that summer cycling across the United States, and we met many great people. What we learned traversing all those backroads is a simple truth: that the vast majority of people in this country, and this world, are good and decent.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it by reading or watching the news, or by scrolling through your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“Bad news is more sudden than good news, which is usually gradual,” explains Ridley in his essay. “Therefore bad news is more newsworthy. Battles, bombings, accidents, murders, storms, floods, scandals and disasters of all kinds tend to dominate the news. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ as they used to say in the newspaper business. By contrast, the gradual reduction in poverty in the world [which has been cut in half over the past 20 years] rarely makes a sudden splash.”

Every once in a while, however, you come across a good news story, like this one that took 33 years to make the headlines (from CBS News article):

Scott Macaulay hates eating alone. So when the vacuum-cleaner repairman was faced with spending Thanksgiving by himself one year, he came up with a plan.

“I put an ad in the local newspaper called the Melrose Free Press, and decided I would cook Thanksgiving dinner for up to 12 people and that’s what I did,” he said. “And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

That was 33 years ago. He’s hosting about 50 people this year.

“I think each of us are called to brighten a corner where we are and if everybody took care of their neighbor in their own neighborhood we’d have a much better world,” Macaulay says.

Mr. Macaulay doesn’t have a computer or a cellphone.

There’s a part of me that finds this inconceivable, and another part, a growing part, that envies him.

According to the Screen Time report on my iPhone, I have spent (wasted?) over 9 hours on social networking apps this past week. Why?

I could have justified the time more easily a few years ago, but today, most of what I see on my social media feeds are rants against this or that, shared and retweeted, sparking more rants, shared and retweeted…and the hours turn into days, and the days into months and years.

But if you actually step away from your smartphone and computer and take a long walk or go for a bike ride outside, and if you slow down enough to find an opportunity to “brighten a corner where you are” or to brighten someone’s day just by smiling and saying hello and asking how they are doing today, you’ll notice (as Ridley concludes in his essay) that “the world’s doing better than you think.”

I don’t remember if I properly thanked “Sticky Buns” Jeff (which is what we called him the rest of the trip) for making us breakfast that morning. Or that old man who quenched our thirst in the desert instead of killing us. I wonder if they even remember us. Probably not, but I remember them, and on this Thanksgiving, I thank them for their routine kindness, which is more common than we think.

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