Everyone could spend a little time in service work. If they did, they would have the marvelous opportunity to take themselves for granted. Once you’ve served other people, you find it difficult to skimp on tips. If you are paying attention, you recognize the extra layer of work involved interacting with needs and their people at the same time.

I have reached a place where I pay attention to other people to such an extent that I am very tired at the end of a mild day of humanity. Some people call it shyness, but I think its something more universal and depleting. Instead of shyness, I call it other people are crazy and exhausting.

Many of the things I observe are what my old friend used to call cultural oncology. There is so much evidence of social deterioration, it gives older folks plenty to worry about. If they miss noticing the new things they can be terribly discouraged. I think we need to seek out the new things for that very reason. Look hard. Spend time with babies. Whatever it takes.

In one relatively vacant Baltimore pharmacy, one has the opportunity to connect with multiple crazy people. I heard a technician taking calls on speaker phone. The huge poster about the importance of privacy had no impact on her clever impulse to chat hands-free with her elderly clients. I learned that an Area Man was disappointed to learn that she was not his neighbor and he was further disappointed to learn she did not have confusion pills in stock.

In the same store, I stumbled upon a young woman giving a TED talk on serial killers. I became her audience as her coworker faded away with gratitude. It was very cute that she thought she had any fresh serial killer tidbits for me. I didn’t want to embarrass her but finally in order to extricate myself I had to blurt, “I grew up in the 70s. I get it.”

Disparaging the compulsive story teller is really not what I’m here for.

When I stopped to buy coffee, my second favorite barista was sporting a full makeover and furiously talking to her mom on the phone. I knew that somewhere, a dude was in very deep trouble. Because I like her, I’m sure he deserves it. She doesn’t really like me, but we are forming a habitual pseudo connection. She didn’t have to tell me what was happening, but I thought it was a little sad that she thought it was beneath notice to have a nervous breakdown on the clock. Then again, anyone who has ever been 24 years old and in service will remember those shifts when breaks were just the opportunity to cry out loud.

Another thing I notice is that people are terrible at discerning genuine caring from the artifice of air kisses. I get far more than the average number of honest replies to a very genuine, “How ya doin’?” and I’m still surprised I don’t get more quick confessions. After COVID there are fewer stiff, shiny smiles in reply, but it’s still a lot. I probably only have the opportunity to offer elevator therapy once a week.

Don’t knock elevator therapy. Some people can download an impressive quantity of short-hand complaints in fifteen seconds. It’s an art, and listening provides a tiny healing bandage for the artist.

Does it do any good to love people and donate your attention this way? I think so. I think it’s far more valuable than a quarter in their tip jar. My second favorite barista would rather have the quarter, so I provide both. I’m completely certain she thinks I’m a ridiculous fruitcake.

I agree sometimes, but whenever I begin to really believe I am a ridiculous fruitcake, something happens. My mail carrier slows down in the rain to say that Tofu and I are both beautiful. She says it carefully to communicate that we are exactly the same degree of beautiful and this is no human playing favorites deal.

My heart fills to include my fellow fruitcake.

Now, please excuse me. I need to call the pharmacy and pretend to be the ghost of Ted Bundy.


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