This story stems from October 21, 2017. At the time, I had been working for GrubHub, picking up and delivering meals all over the Seattle metro area. I did this on my motorbike, which emphasized the unique and challenging terrain and weather that is typical to Seattle. It also allowed for me to engage briefly, but frequently, with humanity. The following relates to one of those brief moments.
As I see it, every human interaction is, or at least has the potential to be meaningful. These interactions provide an amazing opportunity to make a positive impact on the life of another person. This can be accomplished in 100 different ways: a nice gesture, a compliment, or my personal favorite–unwavering eye contact and a genuine smile.
At the Gyro House on 5th St. in Seattle, I have found that opportunity to have hidden itself. No, that is not quite accurate. The opportunity is always present, but accomplishing the aforementioned ‘positive impact’ does not always so easily come to fruition. On multiple occasions, my job has had me visiting the Gyro House.
There, I have encountered two persons with which I have interacted. The first, a younger woman who is seemingly shy but pleasant enough, if only speaking to the basics of our transaction. The other, an older gentleman who consistently bears a busy, downtrodden demeanor. It is like he carries burdens, deeply entrenched in the skin creases on his face; the weight of which cause the skin to droop down and make it difficult for him to smile. For time and time again, I had shown my own smile. I waved. I said “hello” or “thank you!”, very enthusiastically even. But all of this was to no avail. I always perceived him as grumpy, rushed, and uninterested in engaging me in conversation.
On one particular night, it came to a point for me. This would be the make or break of my human interaction belief system, at least for this particular individual. I walked into the Gyro House, soaking wet from the Seattle sky’s incessant spit. The man did not look up. I got that feeling like when you can tell someone sees you but is choosing not to acknowledge you. Eventually, through the food expeditor window, he acknowledged me, and I waved enthusiastically. I received a mumbled response of some sort. After a couple minutes, he came out and started bagging my items without making any eye contact. He was almost finished and then he answered a phone call.
While he chatted on the phone, I considered giving up. I considered marking the lost cause box for this man, in the ‘every interaction can be positive’ department. But then I considered, sometimes the harder nuts to crack–perhaps they are so hard because what is inside is deep and rich and beautiful and worth protecting. Maybe other nuts with lesser shells had been ravaged and taken advantage of in the past–and so microevolution brought about a tougher shell. I think we humans are like that. The more hurt we get, the harder we will make it for anyone to reach us. I find this true at least for the delicate inner parts that are most important to us. I also considered the weather and how his restaurant was empty. Then I was glad he took the phone call because hopefully it was an order that would bring him more earnings, and in turn create profit that would provide for his needs. Then I thought how this man is just making food alone in this little restaurant on a dreary, dark, eternally misty, Saturday night. It goes with the territory I’m sure, but I’ll be damned if I was going to give up on this man!
Once he was off the phone, I inquired if the weather was keeping people away. He responded with a saddened affirmative nod. He finished wrapping and bagging the food, as he listed each item to account for them. This was it. My last chance was about to evaporate.
“Where are you from?” I asked inquisitively with a small nod and semi-smile.
“Me?” As he pointed to his own chest
“Iraq” he answered.
I admit, I am ignorant about many things outside of my own world, and I was so set on this interaction, that I couldn’t rack my pea brain for what language was primarily spoken in Iraq. So I skipped that part entirely and as if it was assumed we both knew, I asked,
“How do I say ‘thank you’”?
And then the most wonderful thing happened! He began to smile.
“Shukran”, he said.
I repeated “Shoe crayon?”
Again, “Shook wrong”
“Shook Ron.” (Nailed it!)
He was smiling more now. Then he proceeded to tell me how to say ‘thank you’ in Russian. I didn’t follow why, but I went along and repeated it, “spasibo” — a word once vocalized, I had remembered learning years ago from two fairy-like Ukrainian girls whom I worked with for a summer in Alaska. Then he proceeded to say some other things and another word I couldn’t understand. But I didn’t care because it was the best part. I repeated it, and then he busted out the biggest smile and hearty laugh! I honestly hadn’t previously thought he was capable of it. Assuming he must have taught me a dirty Arabic word or was talking bad about Russia, I asked with some small worry on my face, “What did I just say?” But while I said this, he was smiling and laughing and reached across the counter that separated us like oceans and lands separate Iraq and the Americas. He reached for my hand and we shook. Not rigid and professionally, but like you would a sort of loose, special handshake with a close friend. As my hand came back down, my eyes got big and I was embarrassed as I realized my hand was still dripping wet from the rain. But this emotion of fear lasted only for the briefest of moments, for my mind purveyed the joy of the ground-breaking that had just ensued.
I resonated ‘Shukran’ one more time as I turned away to splash my way out into the night and marinate in the saturating mist and the joy of the moment; and I stretched my mind for a way to remember that word for the next time I would encounter this dear man in his Gyro House….
Don’t ever give up on anyone. Ever.
Language is quite possibly one of the greatest barriers between people groups, and simultaneously quite possibly one of the greatest bridges between them.
Seattle, WA ¦¦ October 21, 2017
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