Old School

Two days ago the left rear tire on my car encountered some roofing nails on the road, like in some sort of cartoon, or a Charlie Daniels song.

Now, I’m used to bad things happening; red traffic lights or being hit by cars while on my bike in a green bike lane. Today, fate allowed me to limp to the local Big-O Tire. I expected to be out at least the day’s wages to repair or replace the tire, and to provide some context, the car comes with tires costing twice as much as a month’s mortgage.

The service manager was a pleasant man, as young as my children and who clearly knew his business. The shop was full (I got the last space in the lot), and I needed the car for my afternoon route; I had about two hours. He advised me it would be tight, but he would make sure it was done. When I asked him how much, he said it was free, that they would just fix the punctures.

The tires came with the car, so he was under no obligation.

I asked if he took tips; he said sales does not, but the technicians do. Long story short, I took all the cash in my wallet and folded it into my palm to tip the service guy, old school. He was very appreciative, as was I – the ordeal took only one hour. Within five minutes of arriving home, this shop had a 5 star Yelp! review.

Fast forward to today.

Mr. Lake is a man probably 20 years my senior and rides a stylish black Townie with cream colored balloon tires, an eight-speed internally-geared hub, and drum brakes. He was understandably frustrated as his bike had been ghost-shifting intermittently, first working and then falling out of tune. My goal is to be sure this guy never has to see us again outside of tuneups, nothing personal (this always makes a customer smile). After solving his problem, I let him know exactly what I had done, without the technical details, and asked him kindly to bring the bike back in a month for a free checkup. The entire visit cost him nothing but time.

The older crowd really responds to me, mostly because of the silver beard. There is also no substitute for attentive and thorough service, because that’s what matters when you boil the fat away from any interaction. Awareness. Attention to detail. Focus. And of course, kindness.

Mr. Lake had folded a $20 into his palm and shook my hand as he left, smiling broadly.

It comes back around, dunnit?

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Empathy, Part Infinity

Fog blows in over Pleasure Point bringing a chill to an otherwise warm, spring afternoon. Coasting up on my bike to the liquor store with blank windows, this will be the last stop of my day and I am not in the mood to talk with anyone. This isn’t news, really; people bother me, but I know how to handle spontaneous conversation.

Dave Wood seems to know me, but we have never met. His breath smells of vodka, which has affected his speech, and he seems to have begun the conversation well before I arrived. His tense smile reveals two missing teeth.

“Look at all that hair on your face. Some people lose hair when they get older – what are you, 80?” He removes his baseball cap to expose a full head of unwashed and uncut grey and blond hair.

As I unpack my messenger bag to work, I sense Dave needs to be acknowledged in the way he wishes – my smile and minimal eye-contact while I work are not sufficient.

“I’m 52, but I’ve seen some things,” I replied calmly. “Raising kids will do that to ya. And I think the beard is just my hair migrating from the top to the bottom of my face.”

Dave is not amused. My history is closely guarded and I will share only with those whom I trust. I don’t know Dave’s backstory, but I was about to find out.

“My 16 year-old son doesn’t talk to me. Well, I can’t find him. I don’t know where he is.”

He goes on with a stream of consciousness, becoming louder and slurring his speech further.

“I used to be a professional fertografer, man. Then I was riding a bike this one day, up to Sand Point, ya know? I wasn’t wearing a helmet and now I have this detached retina. Do they pay you to tape this paper to windows? You think I could get a job there? I can’t ride bikes anymore though.”

He claims an expired poster I had removed from a window while regaling me with his story and happens to be carrying a brand new black Sharpie, which surprised me. I gave him my first name and showed him the patch on my bag with my company’s contact information, which he wrote down, misspelling every word, including my name.

Dave becomes increasingly agitated when foot traffic from the liquor store flows around him as he is standing directly in the path to the store’s entrance. I gently guide him to one side of the entrance to avoid people, who walk by with an obvious effort to not look at us.

After talking about West Side vs. East Side homeless politics, and my overlooking his tangent about women’s grooming habits (I don’t know where some of this came from – I mostly listened), his face relaxed and his eyes became soft, like he was going to cry.

“Thank you for talking with me, Rob. No one gives me the time of day if I ask. I will remember you.”

Dave doesn’t need to know what time it is. Dave needs to know someone cares, even if they can’t help.

—-

Every day I ride my bike for work in this town, I encounter homeless people. I don’t know for certain if they choose to be on the streets or if they are trying hard to become active participants in society. No one can know for sure without an evaluation. Being around people, strangers in public, makes me anxious, but I have to do it sometimes. One of the things I am good at is feeling a person’s pain even if I don’t know the origin, and making them feel a little more comfortable, which is contrary to my own anxiety.

This post was inspired by a teacher I follow on Instagram. Kindness is not just absence of malice, it must be active and one must be aware of their surroundings to make it count for all it’s worth.

Everyone has a backstory. Know this before you say one word to a stranger.