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I sat down this afternoon with my favorite reading-snack, O the Oprah Magazine, flipped it over, and started reading back-to-front. (I read almost every magazine this way; most have something witty on their last page, and that way the photo features come next.) “What I Know for Sure” is the last page in every O, poignant and thought-provoking in about…500 words, from the look of it.

Instead this one delivered a bark-laugh of recognition.

A friend of mine recently told me a stunning story. He’d returned early from a business trip to China so he could attend a birthday celebration for his mother-in-law. No one was expecting him, so as a joke he decided to dress as a waiter and serve at the big, fancy party. […] And in a room full of over 100 people—people who knew him well!—not one person ever realized it was him.

He told me: “The surprise was that they didn’t recognize me. The shock was that they never even noticed me.”
O the Oprah Magazine, April 2017, p140

I knew how it was going to end. It had already happened to me.

When I graduated high school, I was still a hot mess—I’d been released from the mental hospital in April, so May certainly wasn’t enough elapsed time to cool me down or tidy up my mess. I announced to my parents that I would not be filling the camp-counselor job that I’d lined up back in December. My mom radiated irritation, but her words were a tart, “You’d best find yourself another job in a hurry, then. You will be working this summer.” Even my not-quite-eighteen-year-old brain saw that as a near impossibility, but Dr. G (my therapist) bolstered me with calm action plans. Which included asking everyone I knew whether they knew about any openings.

My friend Kev had graduated a year ahead of us, and was working in order to save up money for college. He had progressed to the day shift, working for our mall as a food-court cleaner. You likely have never stopped to think about this, but at the mall the various food-selling enterprises are separate lessees, like the clothing stores. The mall provides the shared tables, chairs, potted palms, and staff to wipe up the crumbs and mop the spills. Kev had been entertaining us all year with tales of his and his compatriots’ assorted hijinks; he’s a good storyteller. Though the stories did inspire in me a lasting caution that has me covering every table in paper napkins. I digress.

I don’t remember now why Kev was leaving that job. He wasn’t yet beginning college, and he wasn’t moving…but anyway, his position in the coveted day-time slot was opening up. He told me to apply for it. He would talk me up to his supervisor, tell him how amazing I was, and mention that I was putting myself through college. This was a flat-out lie: Rice was putting me through my freshman year, plus my parents had always stated they’d pay for each of us girls’ undergraduate educations. He stressed, though, that “putting myself through college” was the magic phrase, and I needed to stick to it. It felt icky, but I also felt desperate, and I really really didn’t want to work nights. So it would be a lie at the beginning and a hasty exit in August as I started college out of state, with only my honor trampled in between.

Thus began my stint as a mall food-court staffer. All three weeks of it; I contracted mononucleosis, and used that as my panicked exit from deceit. Still, I worked long enough to be a human planter.

See, Monroeville is a small town, even if it looks to outsiders like just another sprawl-y suburb. You run into people you know any time you leave home—little kids from Sunday School at the library, school-friends’ parents at the grocery store, your babysitting employers at the mall. So when the people who had been paying me to watch their son every Friday night for the past three, four years carried their Chinese food on trays to one of the tables, I paused and said hi.

You would have thought one of the palms spoke. Or a chair—their faces were that stunned. They stammered, they regrouped, they finally figured out who I was.

I wouldn’t have thought that a burgundy visor and pinny-apron would be that transforming, myself.

I’m still not convinced they are. I am pretty certain, however, that there are those who don’t pause to find the faces of the people who ‘serve’ them. And I am certain both that my mother and Granny raised me better than that,

and that after being a planter myself, I will do my darnedest to include all the others in my world.

Please. Thank you.

Comment (1)

  1. Robert N Olsen

    Another something I didn’t know about you. Somewhat akin to my foray into the custodial arts. Except my job had 0% chance of anybody I knew seeing me. Every ‘big facility’ job I’ve ever worked (Hospitals mostly) I’ve made it a point to learn every name. It’s a thankless job but so important.

    Reply

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