Monday, September 16, 2013

My Desire To Be Nicer

In 1995, I was working at The Gap on Connecticut Avenue in NW, DC.  This store drew mostly business folks, diplomats, Dupont residents, and tourists staying at the Mayflower Hotel across the street.  These were our usual clientele.  But one day, a man walked into the store, the likes of whom I had never dealt with.  He was tall and husky and looked to be in his late 50s.  His clothes might have been any color once, but now they were blackish and filthy.  He was unshaven by several weeks estimate and smelled as bad as you might imagine.  No one on staff would wait on him; in fact, they asked me to tell him to leave.  I don't doubt for a second that if this situation were to happen today, I would quickly ask the man to leave.  But back in 1995, I was not the jaded person I am today.  So I approached the man, introduced myself, and asked him if I could be his personal shopper for today.  I felt that if I could control him in the store, it might make for a more pleasant experience for everyone.

He and I walked around the store for several minutes.  He pointed to but never touched anything.  He wanted some khakis, some flannel shirts, some tee shirts and lots of socks.  Every time I added something to his growing pile, my manager would look at me with a "you are the one who will be putting all this stuff away, you know" look.

When the man said he was finished, I leaned as close to him as my nose would allow and in a low voice said, "I can't let you try any of this stuff on.  If you want it, you'll have to buy it.  I hope you can understand."  He said he understood and proceeded to take out the largest wad of cash I had ever seen in my life.  I rang up his purchase, which totaled over $400.  He paid, thanked me very much while admitting that he was aware of his appearance and appreciated my seeing past that.  He told me I was a good man, then walked out of the store, seemingly 6 inches taller than when he came in.

Lately I have undertaken a very non-Dop activity:  talking to panhandlers/homeless/crazy people who try to engage me in conversation.  For the most part, over the past many years of being a city-dweller, I have adopted the practice that I think a majority of people have also adopted - ignoring these individuals completely.  Sometimes we are in a hurry; sometimes we just don't want to be bothered.  Sometimes we don't appreciate being asked for what we work so hard to get. We see these people as some lower form of mammal, ne'er-do-wells who have allowed themselves to fall into such despair, embarrassments to society.  I'm totally guilty of this.  I see these people, not as possible victims of circumstance, but as "things" to avoid.  I used to not be like this.

I want to adopt the belief that these people just want to have a civil conversation with someone as much as/if not more than they want a handout.  I've never been so destitute that I had to beg on the street.  But if I had been, I think people would have quickly picked up on the fact that I am an articulate, intelligent, educated man who, for some reason, was in the situation I was in.  But they would have to actually talk to me first to realize that.

You just never know someone else's story.