I’ve ducked into a store twice in the last week, to pick up things forgotten on actual errand runs. It has been like that lately, where I think I am doing awesome, until I realize what is still on the list.
The first time I ended up behind two rather rugged gentlemen with my daughter. These men filled my writing mind with their obvious patriotic, biker, veteran nature . . . and their gentle kindness toward one another.
While one loaded bags into the cart, the other smiled apologetically at us as he began a dance of adding and removing groceries to maximize the use of his pre-paid card. “Don’t worry about it,” I tried to reassure him. “It has been a hard month,” he told me looking ashamed. The dance continued, and he chatted more. He had served in the Navy for most of his life. “I wish I had gone to college, but I needed to serve.” His regret and pride filled the space. “Stay in school,” he urged my daughter and she glowed. “I love school. I have big goals.” He was genuinely proud of her.
I wished in that moment, that I had some cash with me, to pay for the last bit of his lunchmeat and beer. I didn’t. Instead I tried to extend my patience; I tried to show that he mattered. His friend quietly waited for the next bag to sort itself out, somewhat protective, in a gentle and formal way – contradicting the stereotype of his large tattoo-and-leather-covered presence.
“No, I need the bread for sure,” he continued to trade items out, “and at least one of these.” He pulled the case of beer to the cart and looked at me, perhaps waiting for judgement. I have known alcoholics, he was not. He simply wanted a cold beer with his dinner, to sit with his buddy, to relax at the end of a long day. “It has been that sort of month,” I said. He nodded, “It always is.”
Then, purchase finalized, they apologized again for how long it took. “We aren’t in a hurry,” my daughter said. He tossed the card back to us, a dollar and some odd cents. “You gals have a great day.” His friend scolded him knowing that it would have helped on their next trip. I handed the card to the cashier, knowing it wasn’t much, but that it would help someone else later in the line.
The two rough-edged, burly men disappeared. My daughter and I went on with our day. Sometimes I wish I could do big random acts of kindness. Sometimes I think I miss opportunities. That time? I think the conversation, compassion, and respect might have mattered more.
On the second trip, the lines were cartoonishly lagging. The people in front of me were gruff, eyes forward, impatient. Behind me several came and went, ducking from line to line in hopes that their momentum would carry them through the doors faster. Eventually three young men settled in behind me. Overly aware of the darkness of their skin, they left me ample space. One said, “This line seems okay.” “As good as any,” I turned and shrugged, hoping my smile would allow them to pull into the line, out of the traffic.
Grateful for the welcome, they came closer, towering over my short frame. I had only a few items, and they held a small cake “Happy 39th” swirled in icing. The couple in front of me turned and scowled at the men, their loud voices, their imposing size. The couple was not listening. I tried to smile at them, reassure whatever discomfort they perceived, but they did not look.
It became clear, that two of the men were escorting one. One of those large imposing men was struggling to put his thoughts together. He was excited about the cake, but had lingered in the bakery. “I like the red velvet cupcakes,” he said. He tried to convince them that he had money on a card, that he could come back in and get them, or a soda. They had obviously been having the conversation for a while, as they reminded him kindly, firmly that he in fact had only 30 cents left on the card and that they were not coming back in, they had only come to pick up the cake.
I made room on the counter as soon as I could, placed the divider, and smiled nearly-directly upward. The cake was placed carefully down, and the men continued their circular conversation after each said a genuine “Thank you,” for my insignificant gesture.
As other customers continued to glare, scowl and give them wide berth I struggled. I watched these kind and careful men get judged, over and over again. All I could do was smile, welcome them into my space so that they could give others space. All I could do was say “It looks delicious,” and enjoy the wide grin of the young man who wanted to buy his own cupcakes. I could feel their tension on my side ease, and their guard rise behind them as people avoided our line.
These were two little moments. Echoes of things that happen daily. They illustrated something, though. How helpless we can all feel, how unkind the world and her people often are, and how little it takes to make things just a little better – how we are not actually helpless when it comes to being kind.
People seem to have grown wary of everyone around them, but rejoice in the chance to remove the barriers and fear. I will continue to be one of those abnormal people in line, not in a hurry, enjoying chatter to break up the monotony of waiting, to remember that we are all people, to share a smile.
It makes me happy to see my kids doing the same, extending their kindness wildly, as they have always done. They have always openly complimented others, something I have gotten used to. When they were little, new to the world and her variety of people, I would often hold my breath as they pointed wildly before speaking. Nervous until I heard them, until the people they pointed at heard them and smiled. “Wow, look at his beautiful skin! It is so dark and shiny, like the night and the stars!” “Mom! Did you see the artwork on that person? They have a whole museum on them and only have to look in the mirror!” “He doesn’t have legs, he has wheels! He gets to drive everywhere!”
Judgement-free, kind and human. We are all stuck in the line at the store. We are often miserable there. But we don’t have to make it harder.