in defense of toll takers and airport curbside parking monitors

i can usually make people smile. it’s not like i consciously try to do so. rather, it just happens. i appreciate people and don’t take for granted that they might be willing to interact with me. an offered smile is typically reciprocated, a kind word or gesture blushed at, thanked, or returned in kind. recently, however, i’ve met my match. i have found two groups of people that i cannot seem to affect, let alone quip cheerfully with me. my world is shaken.

recent trips to the midwest and the airport have brought me face to face with toll takers and the airport arrivals curbside parking monitors. if i were one to make sweeping generalizations (and i am not normally one to do so) i would suggest that these two groups of people are jaded. they are grumpy and sometimes border on cruel. take, for example, the time i told the curbside parking monitor that the person i was picking up was labored with crates and not physically strong, he told me, “move along. she’ll be waiting when you come back.” “she’s right there on the other side of the door,” i said, smiling, pointing to my 70 plus year old friend weighed down with parcels. “can you not hear me? move along.” he stated, the right side of his lip pulled up as if surprised by my smile and kind, softly delivered pleading. i sat there paralyzed wondering if i was being teased and smiled bigger and scrunched my eyebrows. he got out his ticket book and started writing. “move it or i write.” and so...i left my friend who was making her way through the revolving door. when i came back around to the curb i practically threw her luggage in the car. when i stopped to actually hug her, the attendant dropped his chin and looked over his sunglasses at me and motioned to his ticket book.

where the parking attendant was shaming and impatient the toll takers whose booths i recently frequented were indifferent. 100%, wholly committed to not giving a flying fig about any interaction i initiated. i tried plain smiles. i tried “you have a hard job.” i heaped thanks and gushed gratitude. i even offered one a power bar. i couldn’t get a single one of them to even utter a sound. most never even looked up. i commented to my midwest hosts how disheartened i was by the overwhelming sadness of the toll takers. i shared with them my failures at affecting any response and they simply rolled their eyes and said, “they’re all like that. give up trying. they hire people who are like that for a reason. they must. they’re all that way.” 

this struck me. could this be true? could a majority of grumpy, indifferent, non social, still faced people aspire to be toll takers? might people with major axes to grind or chips on their shoulders interview to monitor the curbs in the arrival area at airports? i don’t think so. rather, the individuals with these jobs and countless others like them (insert here jobs like bathroom cleaners at k-mart etc), have gotten themselves employed. their positions are neither high paying nor glamorous. they are placed in situations where they interact with hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people a day who are trying to get somewhere or to someone. to most people that encounter them, they are a means to an end. their employers want them to keep things moving efficiently and many of the people they interact with are likely trying to bend some rule. “having exact change applies to everyone else but me, right?” “when you say no stopping or parking in the arrivals area that certainly doesn’t mean i can’t wait for my friend who will take 5 minutes to walk from there to here does it?” it wouldn’t take long to burn out, to harden your heart and your face and your attitude. for every kind encounter there are likely hundreds where you are treated with disrespect, anger, or, even worse, complete disregard. what might it be like to spend your days taking money from people who never look at you? how would it feel to have your job description include keeping people from those they are anticipating and preventing convenience. no wonder they don’t respond. it might just be too much to do so.

last night i was conducting a meeting at a table in an urban park. there was a concert beginning when my colleague and i wrapped up so i chose to sit and partake for a while. when the dancing began a young man in his early 20’s caught my eye. he looked familiar, like someone i know who lives (i thought) in another city. the music was zydeco and this young man was escorting a woman 50 years his senior to the dance floor. my heart leapt as i watched him leading and spinning her and smiling. i thought, “what a gift those two are giving to each other...and to me.” it always moves me when i see people who don’t appear to “go together” relating and engaging. especially when it’s across generational, gender, race, religious, or socio economic gaps. these two were a mismatched pair but the young man appeared to be trying diligently to engage in a fun and light hearted way. i hoped that my son might do the same and that i might take similar risks to offer fun to someone’s day.

as the evening went on i scanned the crowd for the young man to see if the woman was with him; his grandmother, an aunt, an old family friend, but could find neither him nor her. i wanted to tell them how inspired i was by seeing them share space on the dance floor. on a whim i texted the young man he reminded me of to see if he’d happened to be at the park. hours later he replied that he was. when i told him how deeply touched i had been by seeing him initiate the dance he replied with, “she was NOT havin’ it. haha. she got really cranky and left. but i tried...”  there’s wisdom there. he tried. 

the person i reach out to might wrinkle their nose (and a whole half of their face) in response to my effort. they might think me crazy or double motived or both. they might leave me standing, alone, on the dance floor. when i reach out i might be met with silence, blank stares, judgement, and possibly even a ticket. i may get push back or nothing at all and yet i must try. there is no need for me to be assured of a response and even less need for me to assume that the recipient of my kindness is somehow at fault. i need not judge. i cannot pretend to know what it feels like to stand in the shoes of those at whom i smile. the response to my effort is not mine but the way in which i value, honor, and treat others is. i will not be stopped by my own inability to handle rejection or judgement. and i will also not be stopped along the curbside at arrivals at pdx. i’ll smile from my window as i drive happily by, letting my passenger jump into my moving car so as not to offend...

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