So I’m sitting in a bar in St. Louis last week at a going away party for a friend. She got a new video editing job in another town, pays more, and she’ll be able to work on better projects. You can only edit so many fried chicken videos.
One of the guys sitting at the table, a local indie movie guy, who comes off a little cocky because he’s made a couple of movies that a few people liked, starts railing on the people who work at fast food restaurants.
“I always check the bag before I drive off because they’re so fucking stupid! I don’t care if it pisses em’ off or not! One time, just one time, I’d like for them to get my fucking order right!” He was practically yelling. Everybody at the table laughed.
It made me want to throw up. Those are my peeps, man. I spoke up, “you know, I just traveled all across the United States and I was amazed at how nice people at the drive up window are. And they don’t even have to be.”
I thought about this a lot on the road trip. I found myself relating more and more to the people in my world — the motel maids who’d say, “Don’t worry honey” when I’d beg for another half hour to check out, the desk clerks who’d be there late at night, with a friendly smile when I’d pull up needing a room for the night, the kids at the drive up who’d hand me my coffee or hamburger, the toll booth attendants, the gas station cashiers. These are just ordinary folks trying to make a living. I can not even describe how sweet they were.
When I came across Nate, who’s walking across America, (who, by the way, he’s supposed to wrap up in about two weeks and I’ll get an update) when he and I stood out on that hot Utah highway, we shared identical observations about our respective journeys. Both of us remarked that we could not believe how nice people had been to us.
Isn’t that wonderful? Just think about that for one minute: a young man, a middle aged woman (if I live to be 110) had both experienced abundant human kindness. Course, if you expect people will be decent, and you treat people decently, it’s funny how it usually turns out that way.
My mother had a way of relating to people that was truly remarkable. She charmed babies and sailors. She could size up a person in a matter of minutes, without acting superior or inferior, she was simply empathetic. Her people were poor, they left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Her dad was a cook, her mom a waitress and she followed in their footsteps working in bars and cafes up and down the California coast, until she aspired for something better. Pregnant with me, she went to Western Union school in San Francisco to learn to be a teletype operator, which eventually got her a government job. This would put food on our table for decades.
She didn’t do all of this alone. She hired help. But, this wasn’t the fancy lady’s kind of help like the movie, where the white woman sat around and played bridge while the black woman raised the kids and kept the house. This was where the white woman and the black woman were separated by a narrow thread. My mother always told me, “whatever I make, I split with my help.” It was a necessity. She was working to take care of her family, she hired women who were taking care of theirs. They were sisters in arms.
Most people of a certain age remember where they were when President Kennedy was killed. We were living in Ft. Worth. My brother Don and sister-in-law Beverly saw him that morning at the Worth Hotel before the motorcade left for Dallas. When the shooting occurred, all of us kids were sent home immediately, told to go straight home, no explanation. My mother had seen the teletype wires, she’d rushed home as soon as she could. It was an eery feeling for a second-grader, walking home, knowing something was really wrong, but not sure what.
When I got there, my mother and our maid Agnes were standing in the living room, transfixed by the news on TV, both of them with tears streaming down their faces. Agnes broke down, my mother reached out, and Agnes turned around and buried her face in my mother’s chest.
My mother just stood their holding her, the pain in her face I will never forget. She knew for all the sadness she felt at that moment, a light of hope had gone out for all the Agnes’ of the world.
Such things leave lasting impressions.
My mother would have been 88 years old today. I thank her for teaching me how to be part of the human race. I thank her for showing me how to look for the decency in people and, more often than not, finding it.
Happy Birthday, Mama. God rest your soul.