This is a post about kindness. This is also a post about making connections in unexpected places. It’s a Mini post, so it’s too long for a tweet or Facebook post, but not long enough to be a Main post. It’s just a little examination of something that happened to me at work on Friday.
I work at a history museum that is next to several restaurants, including two that share our parking lot. It’s the offseason for tourism in the Northeast right now, so we tend to get fewer than 50 customers per day from January through March (not counting school groups). So, I end up not having customers for about 80 percent of my 5-hour closing shifts.
There’s an intellectually disabled young man who works at the restaurant next door as a dishwasher. He comes into the museum almost every day and goes past the front desk to the cafe. And almost every day he comes in and sees me killing time between customers. And he gives me shit for not working.
There are two ways to go with this. There’s the way that most of my coworkers have chosen, which is to feel creeped out by his very presence, avoid eye contact, and hope he goes away. And I understand where they’re coming from. In an economically advantaged tourist community, people like him don’t come around often, and when they do, they’re usually on the other side of the counter with their handlers. So, it’s possible to talk to the handlers and not to the people with intellectual disabilities.
I’m so disappointed in all my coworkers who act this way. I don’t know if or how he addresses the people who work the desk when I’m not there, but you know what I do when he gives me shit for not working?
I give him shit right back.
And it goes on, sometimes for ten minutes or more. Now, he has a speech impediment and is a little tough to understand at first, but with practice, it gets easier to understand him. He can be rude at times, but I don’t take it personally. He makes fun of me, I make gentle fun of him or, more often, myself, and we make a genuine human connection. He’s pretty funny, actually, when you get to know him. And I have.
Now, I used to work in an inner-city public library. So I’ve seen some shit. I’ve worked with homeless people, impoverished people, recent immigrants from all over the world, and all colors and ethnicities, to the point where some days, the only white people in the building were we employees behind the desk. And every single day we had to deal with a guy who was completely incoherent and barely in touch with reality. And we had to try to make meaning out of schizophrenic ramblings that didn’t make any sense. And we also had to try to make him understand that he owed us money. And I managed to do this every shift for a year and a half.
So yeah, my dishwasher friend? He’s in touch with reality and puts words in the right order, so already he’s ahead of the curve in my estimation. But my coworkers at the museum haven’t had the experience with the less fortunate segments of the population that I have. And so they don’t see my friend as a fundamentally good guy with some challenges. They see him as an annoyance that needs to go away.
And man, is that sad. And disappointing. Because my coworkers are the ones who are missing out.
So, if you take away anything from this, I hope you extend kindness to someone unconventional, someone that most people don’t want to see or acknowledge. You just might find a new friend.