I remember it like it was yesterday. I was working as the multi-unit manager for a bunch of restaurants in an airport. In those days I worked hard and partied harder. In retrospect, I was probably a much-hated person. I was the perfectionist who also liked to joke around. So I was constantly screaming at others for doing the exact same shit that I would do. I ran around that airport with my chest puffed out and made a mad nuisance of myself.
I was in love at the time. She was a coworker who I’d met when I first started on the job. The funny thing, she’d nearly had to fire me in my second week as a bartender. I came into the cash room one day with my till $200 short. She grilled me like she was the FBI and I was a bank robber. I was sweating prolifically, like only a fat-ass ginger can pull off. The end was nigh until I said, “Hey, wait a second. Let me see that register strip.” Sure enough, I’d punched in 33 domestic beers instead of 3, for a traveler. Whew, that was a close one.
She was Ethiopian and the most beautiful human being that I’d ever seen. Our ages were fifteen years apart, but she was definitely the grown-up in the equation. It was a steamy relationship and it was destined for the inevitable flame-out before we even started. I told her every one of my secrets before I ever kissed her. We were inseparable for a short time.
But I digress.
One day at work I was flying around in giant asshole mode. I came into the office area like a whirlwind of bad intent. I started firing staccato orders at one of the office staff. She was not my subordinate.
“Hey Gayle, can I get such and such report?’
She gave me the side-eye glance. I was so full of myself that it didn’t even register. “Sure.”
“Thanks.” I stood there, tapping my foot I’m sure, while she took her sweet time producing what I wanted.
“Here you go.” She handed the papers to me with dead eyes and disdain.
“Thanks. See ya.” I burst out of the office beelined for the elevator.
“Hey.” Said a soft voice behind me.
I turned with a smile and said, “Oh, hey Honey.” Or some other sickly-sweet nonsense. I know my voice dropped a few octaves.
“Why did you do that?” said my girlfriend.
“Why did you go in there and yell at Gayle?”
“I didn’t yell at Gayle.” I’m sure my cheeks were burning when I said it. I am a ginger, after all.
“You didn’t say hello. You didn’t ask how she was doing. You didn’t ask about her father who just had a heart attack.”
“I was in a hurry. I need to get shit done. That’s what I do, get shit done.”
“No.” She said, shaking her head. “You need to slow down. In my country you have to say, ‘Hello, how are you’, before you do business. In most cases you would even have a coffee or a meal before you talk business.”
“How do you ever get anything done? Time is precious.”
She grasped both of my hands and looked me in the eye. “No, Brother T. People are precious. Jobs come and go, but people are forever.” All I could do was nod in shame as she turned and walked away. As the day went on the idea of it sunk deeper into my psyche. I was being a real asshole.
The following day I tried a new tack. I was Mr. Etiquette for the day. I was small-talking everywhere I went in the airport. I realize now that it was probably jarring for all the people who were used to the asshole me. By the time I reached the office, I was in full-on bullshitting mode. It’s been a long time, but I think (hope?) the conversation went something like this.
“Good morning, Gayle. How’s your father doing?”
“Okay…” Followed by an awkward silence.
“Well, err, great. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” This was followed by more awkwardness and work talk.
It was only later that I found out how my co-worker perceived the conversation. She went to our mutual boss saying:
- Terry was nice to me.
- I think he was lying.
- I think he hates white people.
They say no good deed goes unpunished.
I persisted. From that day on I have been Mr Etiquette. I start every interaction, be it pace to face or on the phone with the question, “How are you?” The girlfriend is long gone, but her words of kind wisdom have lived on.
But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I was still a raging asshole. I would be that way for the next eight years, screaming, pounding tables, throwing things, until I finally escaped the restaurant industry for good.
Consider this an open apology to all those who had to deal with my shit.