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The Kindness of a Stranger at a Stevie Wonder Show

The author's profound gratitude to the man who came to her rescue

By Jill Smolowe

The morning after the night I’m about to describe, I shared this story with a few friends via email. The first response: “Deep envy from here. Serious envy.” The second: “DEEP DEEP DEEP envy...” So consider yourself forewarned.

My story begins back in February, when an ad caught my eye for a Stevie Wonder concert at an arena just a half hour from my home. I’d always wanted to see Stevie live. Better still, the April program featured music from Songs in the Key of Life, for me one of those magical albums from my college days.

I went online to buy tickets for my husband Bob and me and cringed when I saw the steep price range. Then again, how many more chances would there be to see Stevie? I purchased $90 seats way up in the nosebleed section. Hey, whatever. Stevie!

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Come concert time, my enthusiasm had waned. Owing to a (very stupid) accident that resulted in a broken foot, I was now hobbling around in a heavy boot and navigating with a cane. That evening, it was raining and my hampered mobility made the walk from the parking lot to the arena feel endless. As I joined the hoards of giddy concertgoers, the nosebleed section felt dauntingly far away.

The Worst Seats In The House

A veteran of Manhattan pedestrian traffic, I tried to shift into commuter-rush mode, eyes to the ground, seeking out exploitable openings. But it’s impossible to run a defensive charge when moving with the grace of a rhinoceros. I’m going to regret this, I thought, as I eyed the escalator ahead. To my surprise, people courteously made way for me, doing it with a nonchalance that didn’t make me feel like an object of pity. I cleared the top of the escalator, amazed that I hadn’t wiped out — only to confront yet another escalator to be conquered.

Finally back on unmoving ground, I felt shaky as Bob and I set off in the direction of our section. We walked. And walked. Then walked some more. At the very end of the winding corridor, we discovered that our seats were buried behind an unmarked, unlit narrow opening. Eying me with a worried look, an arena employee said, “You going to be able to handle that?” His unexpected concern gave me a lift. Nice guy.

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The dark descent to our row? Not so nice. By the time I lowered myself into my seat, I was exhausted. Settling back, I noticed that our distance from the stage was so enormous that it was impossible to make out the instruments on the set below. I’d once attended a Billy Joel concert where I’d let similarly terrible seats bum me out. Not gonna happen this time, I told myself. You’ll just close your eyes and listen.

The thought of a little shut-eye suddenly held appeal. I tipped my head onto Bob’s shoulder and was starting to drift off when a voice nearby said, “Would you like floor seats?” My eyes popped open. Hovering above me was a tall, slender man. “Excuse me?” I said.

A Sincere Offer Or A Scam?

“I have two extra tickets for the floor that I couldn’t sell,” he said. “When that happens, I like to give them to people in the worst seats.”

I looked at my husband, like, “Huh? Is this for real?” Bob looked skeptical, too.

“That’s really nice of you,” I said. “But where are you going to sit?”

“I have a ticket.” The man extended his arm. “Here. Take them.”

Slowly, Bob reached for the tickets. “Thank you very much,” he said, his tone more wary than grateful.

“Yeah,” I echoed. “Thank you so much.”

After the guy walked away, Bob and I stared at each other. Were we the luckiest people in the world? Or had this guy identified us as the biggest suckers in this throng of almost 20,000 Stevie fans?


Bob tilted the tickets toward the light. Floor seats. Row 10. Price of each ticket: $300. “Did that guy really just hand us a $600 gift?” I said.

Bob shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”

For a nanosecond I hesitated. The prospect loomed that we’d re-navigate the escalators and crowds only to discover, “Yes, We’re total suckers!” and have to ascend to the nosebleed section a second time. But the bait was in Bob’s hand. We bit.

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Thanks To A Mystery Man

Retracing our steps to the entrance floor, we showed the tickets to an usher, who pointed us toward another entryway. “Honey, can you climb down stairs?” she asked. I nodded, not sure what that had to with anything until we got to the opening and found ourselves facing a long — really long — flight of closely spaced stairs. At this point, though, I wasn’t thinking stairs. I was thinking, “At what point does someone demand to see real tickets?”

The usher at the top of the stairs waved us on. Down, down, down, we went. At the bottom, another usher held my hand as I made the large, awkward step down onto the floor. (The floor!)

A third usher guided us to seats so close to the stage that I could have played catch with Stevie’s band. Craning my head in every which direction, I searched for our benefactor. “We have to buy that man a beer!” I said. “This is amazing!” But our miracle provider was nowhere to be found.

Then, the lights dimmed and we witnessed yet another miracle. This was, it turned out, the last night of Stevie’s 22-city tour. To mark the occasion, he treated the audience to four (that’s right, four) hours of music. Stevie!

Bob and I left the arena feeling exhilarated — and regretful that we hadn’t been nearly effusive enough in our thanks to our patron. Perhaps to rein in the guilt, Bob speculated that we’d probably been comped corporate seats, not tickets that the guy had paid for out of his own pocket. But to me that only made the man’s gesture more special. If the tickets had cost him nothing, then what difference was it to him if they went unused? Instead, he’d made the effort to ascend to the very top tier of a gargantuan, impersonal arena to create an unforgettable — and very personal — memory for two perfect strangers.

Whoever you are, Mystery Man, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

The rest of you? I feel your envy. Hey, I envy me, too.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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