19 July 2008

Emissions Lady

I recently did my stepmother a favor and took my father's car to get its emissions inspection.

(Odd. I just realized that not only do I still call it "my father's car," but I still think of it that way, even though he died in January 2001. But that, perhaps, is another blog.)

As I waited in that place which is either a long, thin building with windows or a hallway with a roof, I saw her.

She wore her blue overall uniform. Her gray hair was gathered back but with streamers flying. Her job is to finish off the inspection, take your cash or check in payment, check the gas cap seal, and send you on your way.

She has worked at this particular emissions inspection facility for years. I've seen her many times.

Standing there and watching her bustle about her business I realized that seeing her is one of the highlights about the yearly trip to the emissions inspection place. I realized that I had missed her when she was not there, that I had wondered about her and even worried a bit that she had lost the job or gotten sick.

My car's test done, she jumped in it, pulled it forward to just outside the building, looked around, and one-arm waved me out.

"Cash or check?" she automatically asked me.

Handing her my cash, I said, "Hey! It's nice to see you again! I've seen you here lots of times. You've worked here for a long time, haven't you?"

She hitched in mid-gesture and her craggy, snaggle-toothed face bloomed. She dropped several layers of formality.

"Hey, yeah. I've seen you here, too. I recognize you."

Suddenly, we were on the same wavelength.

She said, "I always like to go to places where people know me, you know? It's so much nicer when somebody can smile, like at the grocery store, where somebody's not going to raise a fuss when I point out that something is on sale or something."

I had to agree.

As she printed out my paperwork and sent me on my way, she said,"Hey, your car is doing good, there. I looked at the old numbers and it's looking good! See you next time!"

"Yeah. See you!"

Later, I was telling my stepmother about this encounter. As she told me about her own experiences with people she "knows" in the grocery store, the importance of such contact struck me deeply.

Don't we crave such experiences? Don't we want to exchange a few pleasant words with someone we have chatted with before, while they count out our change or scan our items?

Maybe it's just me. But there are places I visit repeatedly in my daily rounds and I do look forward to seeing particular clerks or serving people again and again. I look forward to the little chit-chat conversations about silly things, but silly things we two people share in particular. I look forward to them not only recognizing me as a person, but as a person that they know some little something about.

And I want these little relationships to be real.

There is so much fakery in our society, where a server is trained to say, for instance, "Hi, my name is Josh, and I'll be your server today." This is a corporate, fake attempt to imitate a real relationship between people, since that sort of thing is a rare commodity these days.

But a real relationship can't come from a single managerial-mandated introduction. It takes time and multiple visits and courage on the part of both service person and customer. Courage to not only be observant and recognize something about the person in front of you, but to eventually say something about it, make some little comment that opens up a real connection.

My encounter with the emissions lady just got me thinking about this, and thinking that it is really quite important and much deeper than it might seem at first.

Or maybe it's just me.

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