(Originally published in Main Line Life 10/2/08)
A couple of days ago I saw a young father with an infant strapped to his chest and a toddler in a stroller trying to navigate his way into Starbucks. At least three people hurried over to help him open the door, and then everyone oohed and aahed over the babies. One lady even said to him, “God bless you. You have a beautiful family.”
The following day I was ordering lunch to go at a local bagel place when the woman next to me started to chastise the young lady making her sandwich, because she had to tell her three times what she wanted on her bagel sandwich. That’s exactly how she said it, “I’ve already told you three times now, I want tomato, mustard, lettuce, and American cheese. Is that so hard to understand?” Shaking her head and rolling her eyes in contempt for this person who was waiting on her.
It struck me how differently we treat one another in those million small ways a day when we interact with our fellow humans. I’ve always thought you could tell a lot about a person by how they treat waitresses, bank tellers, train conductors, grocery store cashiers, and that vast army of people in such jobs who make up the backdrop of our lives as we go through our days.
When I was a young woman just starting to date, a guy I was out with said something so rude to our waitress, that I knew right then and there that I would never see him again, even though he was as handsome as Robert Redford and drove a Corvette. Something just went cold inside me when he spoke the words, “What are you deaf, or just retarded?” to her when she brought our bungled order. Then he looked at me expecting me to laugh conspiratorially. I should have said something right then, but I didn’t have the social skills yet to stand up to someone who I thought of as intimidating.
Not that I am some kind of Little Miss Sunshine skipping through life spreading joy and happiness wherever I go. But I do have some basic code of civility I operate from, and I guess I have expectations that my fellow humans are wired the same way.
I know there are times when you simply have to leave your cell phone on because you are expecting a call from a child or the plumber. But every day I see people (usually women, I hate to say) chatting away loudly and self-importantly while the poor person waiting on them at the register at Starbucks is trying to get their order, take their money, and give them change. It’s like the person on the phone is non-verbally communicating to the Starbucks guy or girl, “You are not a person upon whom I will waste even the smallest acknowledgement or human interaction. You are solely there to get my vanilla latte and get it fast.” Have a nice day!
If you want a precise microcosm of human behavior in all its manifestations, all you have to do is drive from Devon to Wynnewood on Lancaster Avenue. You will see some nice people waving at others to let them squeeze in when there is a UPS truck blocking the right lane. You will see others riding the bumper of the car ahead of them not giving an inch to anyone. You will see some drivers slowing to let an old woman with a cane cross the street in the pedestrian crosswalk. You will see others speed up and try to pass in front of her before she makes it to the middle of the street. You will see people park in the handicap space at the Bryn Mawr Starbucks (I know, I spend way too much time at Starbucks), or even double park – blocking another car – because they are in such a hurry. Naturally, their time is so much more valuable than anyone else’s!
Just yesterday I was stopped at a red light and the guy in the car on my right got out of his car and ran up to the car in front of him to inform the driver that he had a tire that was going flat. I thought to myself (after I made sure my door was locked), Wow – that was really nice of him. I must have paused a moment too long in my reverie, though, as the light turned green, because the woman in back of me honked angrily and made an impatient hand gesture as I looked in my rear view mirror.