Friday, December 28, 2007

The Unanswered Smile

"Are you all right, Steve?"

The orders buzzed in the air as I tried to repeat them. I felt like I was speaking Greek. I ripped through another set of cups, marking and scrabbling and trying not to look at the line that extended all the way to the entrance.

"How are you, Steve?" My co-worker asked again. "Do you got it?"


The noise seemed to buzz in my ears. Laughter. Talking. A continual funnel of activity that accelerated until it no longer made sense. I was trying to remember everything I'd learned. Impossible.

"Let's switch."

Touloue came over and gently pushed me towards the register. I nodded without complaint. Sweat gleamed from my head. I smiled at the customer in front of me and took her order. She didn't smile back, apparently upset over the slowness of the whole process. I apologized, and when I called out the next order, the next customer didn't smile either. I repeated the humbling process of apologizing and smiling and doing my best to serve them. Five customers passed through, and still no smile. I looked up and the line was gone. I sighed and finally relaxed.

I'd started at Starbucks a few weeks before, and I was learning in the fire, as the saying went. I wished that I could respond faster to my customers, but there was so much to learn. Even for a grad student it was overwhelming. All I could think about however, were the downcast eyes and frowns on the faces of our clientele. A part of me wanted to yell, another part wanted to apologize. I understood their response. They'd come for their drink, and they paid good money for it. An interruption was intolerable at a place like Starbucks. That's why they paid five dollars for a latte. Still, it seemed... inhuman to me. I was clearly doing all that I could. Did they simply not see that? Or did they not see me? Mostly, I couldn't help but wonder about even smiling at people if they weren't going to respond. Why bother if they weren't going to look at me?

Any one who has ever worked retail can tell horror stories about mean clientele. As a rule, the clientele at Starbucks were terrific. Most of our clients were good-natured, and a simple apology was more than enough. That wasn't true of our society however. I'd worked enough jobs to know just how inhumane people could be. And if you tried to be nice, if you tried to be kind... they could drag you through a pain that often led to indifference. A pain, a rejection that questioned this whole idea of seeing the good in others.

I thought about that as I filled up the refrigerator with more milk, just another simple job that helped the cafe function smoothly. For whatever reason, I couldn't get those frowns out of my head. A part of me wanted to see those customers again and tell them what I really thought: "Hey, did you know I was a grad student. I'm smarter than you, did you know that?" And than go on in graphic detail about how I was better and more deserving of life's goodness than they were. More than that, I thought about how often people had stopped smiling at one another... simply because no one bothered to return it.

A genuine smile is a wonderful thing; it communicates so much with so little effort. It is an extension of our soul, an extension of our hope and dreams and camaraderie, an olive branch to a stranger. Even absent language, it is a uniting and intimate thread that is able to connect any human on the planet. There are few things as powerful as a smile. But when it is rejected...
The customers remained sporadic for the rest of the evening. I smiled and greeted them, and for the next two hours, I felt a welling sense of purpose as they smiled back and exchanged tidbits of our lives. (Small talk is only small when people remove themselves from the conversation. There's nothing small when the offering is genuine.) By the time the evening was finished, I felt strangely refreshed. Despite everything, my low wages, the fact that my bosses and supervisors were ten to fifteen years younger, and that no one would ever regard my job as significant, I was content. I was learning more than I'd expected about people, and about myself.

Most of us give little or no thought to our daily visits to the coffee shop or the convenience store or the gas station. We think of them as side trips in our life. The more I see, the more I realize that they are not side trips to life, but life itself. Our lives are reflected most keenly not in the number on our paycheck or the size and quantity of our possessions, but in our interaction with other humans. Especially in dealing with people who cannot help us with our success.
But have we missed it? Have we set our lives, and our life goals, to be so impersonal as to forget the one calling to which God places above all others? Have we forgotten our neighbour? Not our friends or colleagues, but the strangers on the way to work, the woman working at the supermarket, the one who we believe sits below us.

Who we are is most clearly revealed in our interactions with people we are most likely to disregard.
Why not then, offer them the simplest of gifts? Step back and think about what is important. To do so is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who considered all people -- from high to low -- as worthy of His attention.

My prayer this week is that no matter how many smiles go unanswered, that we will continue to believe in those around us, that we will continue to hold out for the best of God in everyone, and that those smiles will be reflected in our own life.