“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…” When I was an artsy preteen in the late 90s, this phrase was the quickest way to demonstrate mastery of an affected southern drawl. But like the floppy disk ‘save’ icon, or tapping the telephone receiver on your touchscreen phone, the phrase had been divorced from its original context. I ran with an aggressively erudite crew that prided itself on trivial knowledge so we knew the proper response to the kindness-of-strangers call, was to drop to our knees and yell, Steeelllllllaaaaa with as much pathos as we could muster. (It’s no wonder we were popular with adults; less so with our peers.) But—gratefully—none of us could really grasp the relationship between the two phrases.
To be clear: These two iconic utterances come from Tennessee Williams’s raw, provocative, evocative 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. The film version that came out in ’51 is a showcase of powerful performances by Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, and Vivien Leigh. Leigh plays “kindness of strangers” Blanche DuBois, and Brando is her “Steeellllaaaa” brother-in-law, Stan Kowalski. Brando’s machismo ripples through the screen, and Leigh’s performance is distressingly accurate as she toes the line between genteel, and broken.
Blanche DuBois is absolutely broken. She is tired, aging, needy, and practically unable to care for herself. Then she gets assaulted by her brother-in-law. And in response—retaliation—she is institutionalized. When a doctor comes to collect Blanche she has separated with reality and misidentifies him as her knight in shining armor, then utters her final line, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It is a profoundly sad, deeply troubling exit line that demonstrates how the weft of a narrative can get warped (even by its protagonists) in a distressingly unironic way.
After my brother died I went into a kind of tailspin. Then more horrible things happened, and I did not do a good job of coping. So, what outwardly appeared to be a good-time-party-girl, was really just me flailing in public. One night I drank myself silly in my go-to bar and fell, and then just sat on my knees on the dirty floor and started to cry. I was a hot mess. A couple crouched next to me to see if I was alright… I wasn’t injured, but I wasn’t alright. But they met me where I was at. They bundled me into their car and drove me down the hill to walk me to my apartment door. They probably saved me whatever horrible things await distraught women at night. I remember thanking them through my tears and insistently brandishing my wallet to pay them for their trouble. I remember telling them how sorry I was, and that I hated needing help. And I remember the woman replying, “Sometimes we all need help. Even strangers.” They didn’t take my money and I never got their names.
I’ve spent the past ten years working intently to feel less broken. The mouthy theatre girl, and the tragic barfly, and the introspective survivor are all versions of myself that still exist, but are no longer at odds—these Raileys are not strangers. But they still benefit from kindness. So now instead of shouting “Stella” when I hear the DuBois dictum, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” I check myself, and my gratitude. Then I reply, “Me, too.”