The kindness of strangers
I look on the bright side. Perhaps this is a natural trait of those who have food allergies—in my case, dairy, egg, beef, shrimp, soy, some tree nuts and so on. When simple pleasures that are available to everyone else are off limits to you, you pursue alternate satisfactions. As a perpetual latenik, I never worry about showing up before appetizers are gone because I wouldn’t be able to eat them anyway. I can’t order off the dessert menu, sure, but I enjoy my $11 tawny port without guilt.
My optimist streak was challenged in 2011 when I was writer-in-residence for a community of visual artists. We lived and worked in neighboring studios but when I was awake, no one was home. When I was asleep, they were warming dinner and setting up ping-pong. We had passing conversations—I looked at their work push-pinned to the walls, they were intrigued by my poetry and memoir—but we couldn’t quite connect.
So I got to know Miami on my own: visiting museums, finding a blues café, walking the shore of South Beach, eating out. One night, I found myself in a well-reviewed restaurant that prided itself on a vegan raw menu. The manager chatted me up through my meal, taking care to shepherd me from dairy. Unfortunately, that distracted me from the fact that my sauce, rather than the tahini I assumed, was cashew butter.
My body said, You’re not hungry, early on, a warning. But it wasn’t until I was walking to my car that I felt the full reaction. Behind the wheel, I realized I should not be driving. I called a fellow resident and she couldn’t quite discern my location—that’s how swollen my throat was—and I panicked. I pulled over in front of a fancy South Beach hotel, threw up out the side of my car, told the curbside valet to call 911, unsure what would happen next.
I only appreciate ‘next’ in hindsight. These residents, to whom I was nothing more than an intriguing outsider, rallied. Three people showed up within ten minutes. One got me to the best local hospital, faster than any ambulance would have managed. Two parked my car on a towing-heavy Friday night. Another two joined us in the emergency room lobby, chatting as I tested my airways. It wasn’t until the hospital admitted me, for what I knew would be hours of observation, that they left at my insistence. Let us know what we can do, they texted.
I took a 6 a.m. taxi back to the residence and, per my orders, no one had waited up. But on my studio’s doorknob hung a magnificent, two-foot-stem silk iris.
A year later and a thousand miles away at an art colony in Virginia, I am looking at that iris as I write this. The purple petals have gotten a bit squished from the times I’ve tucked it into a suitcase; it’s threaded into the impromptu vase of an empty wine bottle. But it does considerable work to brighten an otherwise bare, dormitory-style room.
I travel with the iris as a reminder that though life holds perils, especially for someone with allergies, life offers generosities as well. In another world, I’d have avoided my reaction. But what came out of managing that reaction? Lifelong friends.
The kindness and accommodation of family is sacred—and expected. But give the world a chance and it will care for you, as well. We can never discover these gifts unless we journey onward, and unless we have the courage to ask for help when we need it.