Stories of compassion among strangers

'THESE TWO stories, one a comedy and one I think a tragedy, tell of rainy nights, bus stops and sympathy among women. '

Two years ago, I drove home from a midnight movie, "Office Space." I'd been wary of seeing it, because I'd heard Ajay Naidu played a stereotyped role, but I ended up loving it. I was laughing along to remembered lines and a Weird Al Yankovic tape as I drove, the hard rain washing Berkeley's empty streets.

I was about to park when I saw two girls puzzling over a map at the corner bus stop. They didn't have umbrellas.

AC Transit would take an hour to arrive, I thought, if the buses were still running at all. I stopped, rolled down my window, and told them that.

And then I asked, "Where are you headed? Let me give you a ride."

What's the use of burning fossil fuels if it can't be for kindness once in a while?

They demurred, then got in and gave me directions to Alameda. I'd never been to the island before. We all stayed a bit watchful, if friendly, for the first few minutes.

I asked the high schoolers about their schools, their interests and their plans. Of course, I found myself giving as much unsolicited advice as I could cram into the 20-minute car ride. Don't date the guy who lives next to you in your dorm! Take lots of different classes to find out what you love! Listen to my favorite band! They listened politely.

I dropped off the girls, who insisted on giving me a few dollars for my trouble. They gave me directions home, but I promptly lost the way, going the wrong way on one-way streets and an airport access road. Bright lights only lured me toward the shoreline.

I finally called my night-owl flatmate with my cell phone. He used MapQuest to help me get to the mainland, then home, where I dried off and went to bed.

Did the girls feel lucky, grateful, or relieved? Did they share a quick glance before getting into my car, deciding whether I was a nut or a good Samaritan? Did they tell their friends the story of the weird, friendly woman playing Weird Al at 2 on a Sunday morning?

On a rainy weeknight in Berkeley, six years ago, I, too, stood at a bus stop. The girl next to me looked too poised and well-dressed for my taste. (Forgive me. I was in college.) I asked her whether she had a copy of the bus schedule, and she produced one politely from the pocket of her bag. I thanked her. And she said, "You're welcome," trying to keep a quaver out of her voice.

"At least that's one thing I can do right," she broke down crying. "I just talked to my mom on the phone and she just yelled at me, she always criticizes me, she never says anything good or nice ..."

I hugged her until the bus came. What comfort could I offer her that night, in the middle of her story?

All I know of these three people I learned those two nights, when I couldn't see the stars for the clouds and the rain. I am a passing character in their stories as they are in mine. I hope I helped, that I guessed right, but how can you know?

Sometimes cynical, apathetic determinism gets me. The world's going to pot, that's all. In the long term it makes no difference whether I gave those girls a lift, or whether that woman felt momentary solace in my arms.

But the burden of believing that the world is what we make it, each one of us — how can anyone live under that, day after day? And how could anyone believe otherwise?

Last week, on the trolley on the way home, I finished "Einstein's Universe" by Nigel Calder, and my mind boggled at (among other things) the vastness of space.

We're on one tiny planet, the only place in the universe where civilization fights entropy and evil.

Will I ever do enough? How would I know?

I wept a little, but no one said anything. It wasn't nighttime or raining, after all, and the stop where I'd gotten on was far behind us.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each Thursday. You can write to her at .