At 6:23 a.m., I heard the familiar splat of newspapers outside our bedroom window.
Whump. Whump. Whump.
If I hadn't wasted precious minutes lounging in bed listening to NPR, I would have won this round. I hopped out of bed, pulled on a robe and headed downstairs.
Tomorrow, I vowed as I stepped out the front door to retrieve our newspapers.
Tomorrow I will be the one who races to the end of the driveway to pick up the papers.
Tomorrow I will deliver our neighbors' newspapers next to their garage door, right where they like them.
On that morning, I was once again on the receiving end of unearned kindness.
A few months ago, Kirk and Patricia moved into the house next door to us in suburban Cleveland. They are former Clevelanders who returned from Indiana to be closer to their grown kids and their grandchildren.
"Nice people," my husband said after every discussion with them in the driveway.
"Friendly," I always added. "So Midwesterny." No higher compliment passes my lips.
Then something strange happened.
The first time I noticed it, I wondered why the man who has delivered our newspapers for years had suddenly decided to walk them all the way up the driveway.
"Huh," I said.
The second morning, it happened again. I looked around and noticed that several houses down the street still had newspapers at the end of their driveways.
"Huh," I said again. (I'm much pithier after coffee; I swear.)
The third morning, my husband returned from taking out the dog and said, "Hey, when did they start delivering the papers to our doorway?"
I whooshed past him and flung open the door. Kirk's papers were gone, too.
"Ha!" I said.
Later that day, I spotted Kirk in his yard.
"Hey, Kirk?" I yelled from the driveway. "Have you been bringing up our papers in the morning?"
He smiled and nodded. When I thanked him and said he never should feel obligated to do that, he waved me away.
"I was heading there anyway," he said, pointing toward the street. "That's what neighbors do."
Then he walked into the house.
Quite the driveway moment, as they say in public radio.
Once upon a time, I used to toss every neighbor's paper onto the front stoop during my morning walks. Now there I was, racking my brain for the last time I'd done that. Couldn't even name the year.
Most of us have unlimited opportunities to ask ourselves who we really are when no one is watching. The Kirks of the world coax us out of our shells, one gentle moment at a time, reminding us we're all better than we know.
It's become quite the contest with Kirk each morning. I had a sleepless night last week, so as soon as I heard those papers slap the pavement about 5 a.m., I raced out to the driveways.
I jumped up and down in my slippers and pumped my arms like Rocky Balboa. My husband is no better. Every morning he's home, he cracks the venetian blinds to see whether he will take the mountain or has awakened to Kirk's fresh conquest.
They're also now racing each other to fetch the garbage and recycling bins.
"Next week!" Kirk yelled across the drive last Thursday evening.
"Fat chance!" my husband retorted.
Meanwhile, I'm trying to commit more Random Acts of Kirkness, as I now call them. Little things, such as waving in more drivers during rush hour and letting people with fewer items go in front of me in the checkout line at the grocery store.
These small gestures don't make me a better person.
But they do bring me closer to the person I want to be when no one's looking.
© 2011 Creators Syndicate