* The Holiday Tavern *

     It was one of those cold winter nights in the Haight district of San Francisco, the kind where the rain hurts, and your breath forms huge cotton balls that bounce on the pavement.
     I was driving an eyesore that could only be referred to as a "car" by someone who was either a shameless liar or a good friend.
     Technically, the vehicle was totalled when I bought it from an unscrupulous neighbour, because it needed an engine overhaul that would have cost more than the car itself.  I added a quart of oil before every journey.  Most of it would leak out along the way.  I tried to imagine I was driving a huge magical snail; that way I didn't mind the slow speeds and the slime trail it left.
     The car's outer paint had transformed into a hideous mixture of rust and "something brown."  The engine sounded like a lawnmower with tuberculosis.  If anyone ever wondered what the inside of an automobile seat looked like, my car had the answers.  It was a difficult car to drive because you had to keep your fingers and toes crossed to keep the engine running.
     That night I must have uncrossed my fingers to scratch something.  The car died in the middle of a four-lane stretch of Oak Street.  I coasted as far as I could, hoping for a place to turn off, but the street was lined with parked cars and the nearest intersection was beyond coasting distance.
     There I sat, in busy evening traffic, no lights, no locomotion, as tons of steel and plastic screamed by.  In my rear-view mirror I saw a pair of headlights pull up and stop behind me.  I knew what was coming.
     Soon the horn would start and someone would be cursing at me.
     In San Francisco, if you dawdle too long after a light turns green, you get the horn.  If you dare to come to a full stop at a stop sign, you get the horn from the car behind you.  I figured I was begging for trouble.
     But I was wrong.
     A stranger got out of the car and came to my window.  He shouted, "Do you want a push?"
     I was stunned but must have nodded in the affirmative.  He waived to his car and two teens piled out to apply themselves to my bumper.  When I was safely delivered to a side street, they hopped back into their car and rejoined the sea of anonymous traffic.
     I didn't get to thank them.
     Over the years I've realized something about the stranger who stopped to help. I've noticed that every time I'm in trouble, he appears.  He never looks the same. Sometimes he's a woman.  His age and ethnicity vary.  But he's always there.
     I've started to understand he's the best part of what makes us human beings.  The one true thing in this world is an unasked kindness provided by a stranger.  It's the invisible cord that binds us all together and makes life worthwhile.
     This year, when you find yourself immersed in the clutter and bustle of the holiday season, annoyed by the long lines, baffled about how you'll get everything done, remember this:
     One of the people in that crowd is the stranger.  Today, maybe it's you.
     Have a great holiday season, everyone.