This week, I was reminded of a situation back when I was Front Desk Working Girl at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. That seems like a lifetime ago, back when $8.75 an hour was, to me, a personal fortune. This particular occasion, we had a full team at the desk because we were coming off of a sold out night due to a big aviation convention. It was all about small private planes, jets, rich kids’ playthings, so, needless to say, 95% of the attendees were reasonably wealthy and ridiculously rude. It was a miserable week! The phone did not stop ringing as calls of requests and complaints rained down on our weary staff. One morning, just as I was bringing up my bank and logging into the computer system to start my shift, this rather short gentleman stepped off the elevator, located on the other side of the packed lobby, put his hands on his hips, stuck out his chest and yelled toward me, “CAN SOMEBODY TELL ME WHY I DON’T HAVE ANY HOT WATER IN MY &%$#@ ROOM?” He marched up to the desk, past everyone waiting in line, and proceeded to deliver an outburst the likes of which I have never experienced since. My face burned as though every vile word was a stinging slap. It took all my customer service and empathy training not dive across that desk and plant a fist in his enormous mouth.
Finally, sweating, panting and beet red, he stopped long enough for me to apologize and offer to have maintenance come up to check the problem and then just sorta waved me away as though I were speaking another language before stalking off toward the restaurant. I caught a few sympathetic glances from the crowd that had seemed frozen in time during the entire tirade but most just snapped their newspapers back open or returned their attention to wherever their focus had been before. I readjusted my uniform and greeted the next person waiting in line.
This incident has stayed with me for 10 years. I can recreate the whole scene in my mind as though watching a film. I remember the way my heart pounded as he went on and on about incompetence and substandard accommodations, as he threatened and railed and damned the hotel, the employees and the company that owned it all straight to hell. Now, I am always mindful to be especially cordial when dealing with people in service positions. There’s a silent kinship there. I’ve been in their shoes and know first-hand how a nasty exchange can bruise self-esteem and possibly ruin a day. (That is, unless they’re rude to me, which of course warrants immediate retaliation because if I could put on a smile and deliver impeccable service for ten hours after dealing with that Napoleonic nightmare, then by God, so should you!)
This morning, a guy approached me at the gas station asking for change. I hesitated at first. He was clean, sufficiently dressed and nothing in his appearance seemed to point to vagrant, perhaps he was just a guy hard on his luck. He was actually collecting money to buy gas, he explained as he pointed to the empty automobile waiting a few pumps down. I emptied my change stash, reserved for drive thru runs and random snacks, all the cash I had, into his waiting palm. I know people who would frown upon such an act, scoff and come up with a thousand scenarios that painted me the fool and him the con artist/drug addict/psycho killer waiting for a clear opportunity to chloroform me and toss me in his trunk. Regardless, I had to. I had been in his shoes. When I was a little girl knocking about the world on a wild, drug-induced adventure with my dad, we sat in a gas station parking lot scrounging for every coin we could dislodge from the seat cushions and scrape from the floorboards of the beat up sedan that doubled as our home. The total was not nearly enough, even back when gas was cheap! So, my dad went around soliciting extra cash from the patrons but he found just few generous of the lot and only gathered a few more coins.
Finally, sure that was the best we could do, he went in to pay, hoping that what we could afford would at least get us as far as the next station to try again. He came out of the store, filled our tank and glided out of the lot with a fantastic smile plastered on his face. He told me that a woman in the store, at hearing his plight, took pity on us and paid for the entire tank full herself and told him to keep his coins. By then, I was smiling too. We probably looked ridiculous to anyone passing by but with that simple tank of gas, this woman, a stranger, had so profoundly impacted our lives that nothing but pure joy filled that moment.
So, of course, I cannot refuse an outstretched hand when I have it to spare. I always see a child somewhere down the line who may benefit in some way. I don’t need to know the whole story. I don’t care that it might actually be a con artist/drug addict/psycho killer waiting for a clear opportunity to chloroform me and toss me in his trunk. When someone is wearing your old shoes, I believe it would somehow upset the flow of energy in the universe not to acknowledge when they walk back up to you in a gas station parking lot or the other side of a check-in desk.
Working Girls, we may have made great strides in our lives and careers or maybe we just made baby steps. We may have taken chances and won big or lost it all but regardless of where we are, it’s important to always remember where we’ve been and the shoes we left behind.