Sunday, October 24, 2004

Raiding the Archives 9 - A sidewalk lesson

I've fallen behind in my efforts to gradually post my columns that were published before they became available on the newspaper's web site. I'll do my best to cherrypick the ones that stick in my mind, and will try to keep the flow of older work heading your way on a somewhat more consistent basis. As I drop each one into the blog, I'll also share a thought or two on why I like that piece, and why I think it still matters even though it's been months and/or years since I first built the article in my head.

I've always liked this one because if represented one of my earlier attempts to paint pictures of life's small moments. It was spawned by my meeting a particularly friendly garbage collector as I rushed to get our green bags to the curb one morning. He so started me with his cheeriness that it stuck with me a days afterward. I realized that goodness - and good people - are everywhere. And we often find them in the darndest places. The garbageman piece, as I have come to know it, represents an early example of my unconventional journal of the neat people I've met in situations you wouldn't always expect.

It's one of the things I love about being a writer. Despite the loneliness of being at one with a computer when the world is dark and you're the only one awake, you also get to meet incredible people by day. Often, they're name-brand people who you meet through sanctioned interviews (the perks of being a journalist, I guess.) Just as often, they're ordinary folks who would otherwise never have any media spotlight shone on them.

I've found their stories can be every bit as compelling, if not more so, than the famous folks. And it's a privilege to be able to write about these snippets of lives not too different from yours and mine. I hope you enjoy this one, and I hope it helps you recall a similar story in your own life. If it does, don't be too shy to share it here.


Originally published January 14, 2003, in the London Free Press.

Spare a nod for little people in our lives

Our world is filled with people who cross our paths every day, yet we never seem to take the time to look them in the eyes and wish them a good morning.

They clean our offices, deliver our mail, and landscape our parks. We know they're there, yet in our rush to get out of the office, pick up dinner and make it to the kids' skating lessons on time, we briskly pass them without a second thought.

I didn't mean to get this philosophical this past Friday morning. The clock said it was 5:45. Thanks to London's always-entertaining garbage pickup schedule, I had - for the umpteenth time in memory - forgotten to leave the trash and recycling by the curb the previous night.

Waking up in a panic because missing a Friday pickup would mean 10 days of hoarding garbage, I ran downstairs hoping against hope that I would beat the truck.

This time, I got lucky: my neighbours' garbage bags were still there. So I grabbed ours and headed outside.

In my haste, I forgot to put a label on a garbage can with a broken glass lamp inside.

So as my head danced with nightmarish images of the garbage dude slashing his arms on an unseen fixture, I sat on the front porch and waited for the truck's arrival.

Before long, the familiar diesel rumble echoed through the neighborhood, growing louder as the headlights lit up my street. I strode over to the curb and probably scared the heck out of him in the process.

Me: "I'm sorry for forgetting to label this can. It has glass in it, so you may want to be careful."
Him: [Smiling broadly] "Good morning! Hey, no sweat about the glass. I am, after all, a professional."
Me: [Pausing at how customer-focused this guy seemed to be before 6 a.m.] "Thanks, sir. Have a great day and see you next week."
Him: "Sure thing, bud. Have an awesome weekend."

With that, he grabbed the cans, expertly emptied them into the back of the truck, waved at me and continued to the next house.

It was only a 15-second exchange with someone who's probably been by my house hundreds of times. Yet in those 15 seconds, a complete stranger transcended the stereotypical image of the garbageman - politically incorrect reference and all - and became, simply, a real person.

We seem to pigeonhole people based on what they do for a living. Some of us dump on restaurant servers every time a meal is too slow in coming or slightly overdone. We berate them and then leave them no tip at“ all for something over which they have no control. But because they're entry level employees, we seem content that our behaviour is justified.

Perhaps we really are in a rush and we simply don't have the time to talk to them. It's equally possible that we don't think they're worthy of our time. Perhaps they didn't go to the right school. Or they didn't go to school at all. Maybe it's bad for our corporate image to be seen chatting with "the help."

Think about it the next time you're in the office late one evening. Would you know the name of the person who empties your recycling bin? Similarly, would you recognize the lady who waters the plants if you passed her on the street?

I didn't make any new year's resolutions this year. We should be trying to improve ourselves every day of the year and not just in the few days following a drunken all-night party.

But if I focus on one thing in the coming months, it will be to personalize my encounters with those who are traditionally invisible in our status-driven society. I'll start by addressing them by name.

Corporate expediency aside, everyone has a story. If we took that extra time to find out what it is, we might learn more about our own. See you next Monday, garbage man.


Carmi again: The paper ran a letter to the editor a few days after this first appeared. The reader was somewhat upset with the use of the word "little" in the headline. The letter said this word choice highlighted my condescending tone to others. Interestingly, the headline is the one part of the package that I do not write. But readers don't know that, so I had to endure my first public whipping by a reader.

Interestingly, I was just as tickled with this response as I would have been with a kudo. Any response is a good one, and I'm perfectly comfortable if someone chooses disagree with me. Either way, I reached the reader. That's all I can really ask for.


sxKitten said...

I have never understood the mindset that says it's OK to be rude or abusive to people because of their social standing or their job. Maybe that puts me in the minority, but I treat everyone I meet in pretty much the same way. I'm something of an introvert, so I don't tend to start conversations with everyone I meet, but I treat the cleaners in my office with the same degree of courtesy and friendliness as I do the president of the company.

They're both people, aren't they?

Oddly enough, it's the cleaners who are most likely to smile back ... guess I'm beneath the president's notice. Or maybe he's just shy - who am I to judge?

opinionatedguy said...

Again, Carmi, this article resonates with me. I think that you've hit the nail on the head with this one. I've been relatively successful in my life but the one thing of which I'm probably most proud is that I seem to get along with people from all walks of life. It's strange that this, of all things, sticks out in my mind and makes me feel good about myself. In some way when things are going horribly wrong, as they eventually do at times, this thought helps me realize that I'm probably not a horrible person. But, then again, maybe I'm just delusional!

Diva said...

"do you job well" is a great motto, regardless of what the job entails. I love people who take pride in their work, because it's all important, isn't it?

This was, as always, a wonderful story, Carmi.