The Price of Being Nice

The Price of Being Nice


So I stopped in at Wendy’s for a quick burger, a late snack.  Vladimir, the voice behind the speaker, was nice enough to wait on me.  I placed my order, pulled up to the window, greeted Vlady (as I called him) and waited while he retrieved my order.  Readying my wallet, I realized I didn’t have the cash on me.  Moments later, when Vlady returned, I asked if I could pay by card.
“Oh no, I wasn’t going to charge you” he said matter of factly as though I should have seen this coming.
“You weren’t?  Why not…oh, the wait?  It wasn’t bad.”
“No, it’s not that sir.”
“Oh.  What is it then?”
“It’s because I think you’re a cool guy.  Usually, working this late, people come by with an attitude.  They talk down to us.  You treated us with respect.  You were friendly.  I like that.  You’re a cool guy.”

Years ago, my friend Chuck asked if I’d give him a ride to the airport.  I said sure.  After a 30 minute drive, we arrived at Bob Hope in Burbank, a small and convenient airport with much less hassle than LAX. I pulled up to the unloading zone in front of his airline, Chuck grabbed his bag from the back seat and walked out onto the curb.  As soon as the sky cap saw him, he hugged him.  The sky cap hugged Chuck.  Wearing a blue uniform and a stiff hat, the sky cap came from behind his counter just to embrace Chuck, Chuck a fairly frequent passenger and nothing more.

Therefore, sometime later, when in a matter entirely unrelated, Chuck suggested I ask the people who serve me for their names and then use their name to thank them, I thought it a suggestion worth taking.  Sponsorship is like that and Chuck is my sponsor.  As an alcoholic, my head is out to kill me.  In matters relating to me, it can’t be trusted. All too often the thought that comes to mind is “go fuck yourself” instead of “Yes, sir. Whatever you say.”  Case in point, upon being presented the option of either sharing with my employer the source of my having learned everyone’s salary or being fired, I was convinced the option was to tell my employer what his next sexual experience should be.  My sponsor had other ideas.  “The source, the co-worker who gave you the information, does he work there anymore?” he asked.  “No” I replied.  “Then I’d suggest you say “Sure, I’m happy to tell you what I know.”
I never would have thought of that, you probably would have.

That, as well as countless other examples, has proven wise and beneficial.  In fact, in all the years of having a sponsor (over 16 now), I’ve never not had a sponsor’s suggestion not work.  They’re batting .1000.  It’s not that they’re infallible, rather, what’s much more likely is that by demonstrating the humility and willingness to do what is suggested rather than what I think is best, I’m rewarded. For someone as arrogant and assuming as I am, that’s food for thought.

Strangely, the biggest objection to my taking this suggestion came from other people.  On at least two different dates with two different women, I heard, “why are you asking people their names?  Nobody does that and it makes me uncomfortable.”  “Really?” was my thought. “Oh well” was my response.   I remember in China, one girl even repeatedly objected to my giving money to homeless people who asked for it.  Three scoldings on our first evening out were enough.  The date ended with me saying “You don’t seem like a very nice person” and me catching a cab.

For those of you who don’t know me, let me pause for a moment and admit my own many failings in this area.  I have a long and sometimes recent history of being unkind to people. The details and extent of which can only  be imagined.  From grade school to high school and beyond, unkindness (and thoughtlessness) was my speciality.  For many years, it were as though it were my life’s work.  Find me an alcoholic/addict who doesn’t destroy lives and I’ll find you a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.  Today, I try to be different.  Today, I try to be better.  Sometimes, I succeed.

Not long ago, I was scolded again, this time by an attorney.  I was called into court for a small lawsuit involving a zealous credit card company and their interest in collecting my debt.  Remember my homelessness?  If I couldn’t afford rent, guess what else I couldn’t afford. Before the trial and before the judge showed up, my attorney and I made our way into the courtroom and to the defendant’s table.  The only other people present were the clerk and the bailiff.  I said “Hi” to both of them.  My attorney sternly objected, “What are you doing?  We’re in a courtroom.  Don’t do that!”
“All the more reason” was my thought.  “Why not?” I asked.
“Because you don’t do that!” he insisted.
“I do” I responded.
The trial went as well as expected.  I lost what little of my ass there was to lose.  The judge admired my adventures (the credit card had expenses from all over the world) and let me know it by way of a compliment.  Wasn’t that nice?  I thought so.  I thanked her and grabbed my belongings before heading to the door.  On my way out, I made sure to stop by opposing counsel’s table to visit the lawyer and his witness (the credit card representative).  “Thanks for showing up, gentlemen!  Great job,” I beamed while shaking their hands.  I gave them the smile I try to give to everyone.  The attorney looked at me with bewilderment, his client with disgust.
Outside, my attorney shared his observation.  “Never, in all my years of practice have I seen a defendant, especially a losing one, thank the lawyers he lost to.”
“Why?  He’s just doing his job.  Just like you’re doing yours and I’m doing mine.  It’s nothing personal” I explained. Certainly, no reason not to be kind.
As it turns out, I may have lost the case, but I felt pretty good doing it.  That the opposition didn’t like it, unexpectedly, made it that much better.  I lost a case.  Maybe they lost face?  That wasn’t my intention, but I’ll take it.

As much as few have objected to my gesture of acknowledgement, others have admired it.  After inviting a high school friend I hadn’t recently seen to a concert some 25 years after our graduation, he observed my habit with curiosity and delight going so far as to confess he planned on making use of it himself.  I hope he did.  Spreading sunshine warms the world’s recipients and it certainly warms me.  Aside from the few detractors I mentioned, the response from those who are generous enough to serve me has been overwhelmingly positive.  It was true in Spain.  It was true in China and it remains true to this day.  Such a small gesture, it seems, goes a long way toward brightening someone’s day regardless of where in the world that day begins.

Like any good sponsor, Chuck followed up.  “How goes it with asking servers their names and thanking them?”
“Great actually.  Really weird.  They light up like no one else asks them.”
“They don’t” he added.
“Why am I doing it then?” I asked, obviously missing the mark.
“Because they’re being of service and because it’s the polite thing to do” he added. “Most people treat servers like shit.  They don’t respect them.”
“You do.  You love servers” I countered.
“No, I don’t.  How do you think I learned this?  For the longest time, I looked down on the guy who poured my coffee or the waitress who took my order.  I realized my own arrogance and it disgusted me.  I wanted to act appropriately even if I didn’t feel like it.  Over time, my right action was replaced by a right feeling.  Now I enjoy greeting service workers.  And they enjoy me.”

About two years ago, I moved into new community.  I loved the area.  It was a nearly the center of all my travels and, as an added bonus, there was a supermarket right across the street; Ralphs.  I like Ralphs. The prices are reasonable, the store was modern but warm and the people were amazing.  Every time I walked in, I was treated like a movie star!  Liz, the sales manager, even once asked me if I were a star. “Only in my own mind” I assured her.  Along with Liz, there was also “Princess”, the single mother of a seventh grade daughter who lived over an hour and a half away.  Though her commute was long, she loved her job and that it allowed her to provide for her daughter the way it did.  She beamed with gratitude and appreciation and every time I saw her and she beamed at me.  Such a sweetheart.  Because of her work ethic and unending source of good will and optimism, she was my hero.  I told her as much.  About six months later due to a corporate shift, that convenient location closed and its employees, including Liz and Princess, were placed elsewhere.  At the time of my last visit, they didn’t yet know their new destinations.  Though I continued to shop at local Ralphs, and though each had an abundance of friendly employees, their faces were largely unfamiliar.  That is until about nine months later.  In a neighboring city, on my way home, I stopped in at Ralphs to pick up some essentials.  I finished shopping, came to the front end and chose the shortest checkout line.  Looking ahead to see who would greet me, I was startled to see a very familiar face.  It was Princess.  She was my check out clerk and no sooner did I see her than she saw me.  “Peter!”, she exclaimed, “Princess!” I responded.  As though we were two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, she came from around the checkout counter, smiled broadly, opened her arms and hugged me.  Princess, my checkout clerk, hugged me.

So too Chuck’s skycap.  Now I know why he came from behind his counter just to hug Chuck.  He honored him the way he was honored.  Maybe Vlady felt the same way.  He honored me the way I tried to honor him.  And that burger?  More satisfying than any other.  If that’s the price of being nice, I’ll take that too.


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