I wanted to talk about Velma today but I’ll warn you in advance: I’m a little off. Between Writing Brain and being sick, I’ve had about six hours of sleep in the last two days. The insomnia pretty much guarantees my Internal Editor will shut up and let me write (yay!), but my proofreading skillz will be dubious (boo!). All I can say is it’s a good thing for both of us I’m typing and not speaking. My trachea is inflamed, so it feels like I swallowed knots of barbed wire in lieu of noodles. If I weren’t vegetarian already, the sensation would put me off the fishing experience since I now have some idea of what it would feel like to be hooked.
But about Velma…
I’ve been writing in the local mall’s food court of late. Who knew that was where I’d find my writing mojo? You people certainly don’t share this kind of stuff with me. 😉 (Note to self: I see a coffee-table book in the future: Tartitude’s Best Places to Write, 2010.)
But about Velma… I don’t know her real name so I’m using Molly’s suggestion, because yes, my kids have heard about her.
Velma works at the food court in an independent, family owned coffee shop. She’s there every time I go by, whether it’s nine in the morning or night, whether it’s a weekend or weekday. Velma’s generally alone, running the business despite managing to avoid any eye contact with her customers. I’m not convinced she’s the owner — honestly, she doesn’t seem to possess that kind of moxie or pride — but she certainly seems as burdened as one.
Now, I don’t know what your relationship is like with people in the service industry, but I’ve been on the other end of the counter and I know how hard that job can be. Customers can be so rude and unfeeling. True, they are often motivated from worry and fear, but I’ve never understood the desire or willingness to perpetuate misery and grind another person down just because one can. In fact, it’s precisely because of that my code is to try to be an antidote. (I know. I’m sure this speaks to my own failed boundaries and subliminal desire to have people like me, but whatever. I like that quality about me.)
As I do my shopping, then, I engage with people on as friendly a level as subject and time permit. The other day, for instance, when the grocery bagger handed over my supplies and asked whether I could manage without help, I made general noises of reassurance the first time. At the second, I said, “Hey, I need the exercise. How else do you think I got this awesome physique.” Then I noticed the three or four people nearby stifling smiles and left with some spring in my step.
So, a little social lubricant, a little charm. Fun, yes? It is to me.
But how can one get to that point when the server won’t meet your eyes? When if she accidentally does, she won’t answer a smile? When you get the sense she’s so alone and overwhelmed and hopeless she’s now erecting walls which will shut out the most meagre of comforts?
I worry about a person like that. Well, not worry worry, but you know what I mean. I feel concern. I construct a backstory that sees her in a loveless or abusive marriage. She doesn’t have the air of someone who has children, or if she does, I’ll bet they are separated by philosophy or distance. (She’s East Indian, I think speaks Urdu, based on the radio playing in the background and my very basic familiarity with its sounds from my old office partner.) I imagine her extended family to be an ocean away. I imagine her education and monetary resources to be minimal. In that context, coaxing a smile from a person — a moment of shared understanding — feels rather big.
Two weeks ago I thought we were close to something. When she passed me my change, there was a microsecond of time when her face softened in recognition. Then I missed a few days at the mall and it was as if we’d never met. In fact, call me crazy, but I thought she set my refill down with a distinct hint of disapproval.
Then came Friday.
Friday, lo, the clouds did part and the thunder did rumble and the angelic voices did come from on high. She spoke to me. 🙂 She said — and I promise it was every bit as tender and meaningful as the words will imply — “You work here?”
That’s it, guys. I’m in like Flynn. I might have answered with a casual, “No, I’m writing,” but that’s code for, “Go ahead, ask me about what,” and we both know it. We are forming an infinitely small, probably one-sided, possibly weirdly stalkerish relationship, but I’m down with that. That’s how the social fabric is formed. That’s how people on the fringe find themselves back in the stripes and swirls of the pattern. What remains to be seen is which one of us will most benefit.
Want to bet it’ll be me?
I wouldn’t take those odds, because you’d lose. Velma’s made me floaty all week. (And frankly, when you lost I’d be forced to make sure you could handle it, that you were all right. I’m sure you all don’t own coffee shops I can stroll into whenever I wish. 😉 )
Have you worked in a service industry? Have you reached out in what seems like common courtesy and been amply rewarded? I know the ToolMaster and my kids share my “code”, but I’m curious if there are others of you who feel the same way. Talk to me about your own Velmas.