Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Civility Is Not Dead

The other day I followed a man, probably not much older than me, into an office supply store. He was terrible bent over and walked leaning heavily on a cane. It didn't bother me that he was slowing me down getting into the store. I was more concerned by the pain he appeared to be in.

We both found what we needed and stood in adjacent lines to pay. My old empathetic Peg-person came out and I had to speak to him. The cashiers were having some trouble with their machines, so we had to wait anyway.

When I made a comment about how beautiful the day was, he quickly turned toward me. When he raised his head there was a glow in his whole-face smile. I was completely taken aback by his obvious joy at making even a simple connection with someone else. My smile widened in response and we chatted amiably for several minutes.

I mention this because I've talked to strangers all my life. Growing up in the Midwest, it came naturally. When I moved to D.C. forty odd years ago it was a habit I couldn't break, no matter how many odd looks I got. In the late 1960s it was unseemly for a young white woman to speak to a young black man in passing on the street. However, my friendly "good morning" or "hello" nearly always was met with an equally friendly, if surprised, response.

In the grocery store, I sometimes regret my openness. Ever now and again I'll greet someone who desperately needs or wants a conversation. Spouse frequently gets bent out of shape because I cannot be rude, even to people who won't stop bending my ear. An appropriate opportunity will eventually present itself for me to escape.

Christmas Eve day two years ago is an example. As I was perusing cheeses, a young black man approached me and wished me a Merry Christmas. I returned the greeting which opened the verbal floodgates for him. He then proudly confessed that he hadn't taken a drink in 7 months and so many days. I enthusiastically congratulated him and wished him continued success. He then went on to detail how he had done it and even though people started to watch and listen us, I just smiled and nodded.

In the end, I offered him a handshake which he turned into a hug and we parted ways.

I believe that every human being has a personal story that they need to share. Now, I'm not sure I would share such a personal journey as this young man did with a total stranger, but it pleased me deeply to know he felt he could confide in me. Our conversation may not have changed his life, but it did mine. It reconfirmed my trust in people and the fact that civility is not dead.