Friday, January 23, 2009

A lesson carried from the cafeteria serving line to Loop street corners

On a couple of occasions I have mentioned working in the dining hall while in college. I've mentioned my work cleaning dishes and, later, during law school, as the weekend security guard.

There was one other task I performed in the dining hall. Though I did it only once or twice, it left a lasting impression. On these occasions, I was asked to be a server.

A server was a person who stood behind the counter and scooped out quantities of whatever item the student requested. At the colleges my kids have attended, I've noticed that there aren't very many servers any more. There's usually someone grilling hamburgers or handing out pizza -- but the kids now obtain most items on their own. There are islands of items set out in the center of a large serving area. In bigger schools there are so many serving islands, it can be almost a maze.

So some of you may not have a clear picture of how our school cafeteria was arranged. There was a single serving line. There were stainless steel rails on which one could set a tray and slide it along while selecting items. A kid didn't double back (unless he had a cast-iron stomach and was looking for seconds). There may have been a separate salad area -- but I doubt it. I remember clearly that the industrial-strength white bread and the oiliest peanut butter anyone has ever seen was at the end of the line. I often used the white bread to disguise whatever entree I was eating. Though I still eat peanut butter, nearly every single day, I hardly ever touched the approximation that was offered in our school cafeteria.

Most of the regular servers were non-English speakers -- Greek, I thought, and Eastern European. Kids pointed; servers doled out the glop.

At the time I was asked to fill in for one of the servers I was fairly well known at my school. I wrote for the school paper and was a member, to varying degrees of involvement, in most of the student organizations. Ours was a relatively small school and the resident population was a small percentage of the total enrollment. This was the only resident dining hall and, one way or another, I knew most of the residents. I may not have known everyone's name, but I had at least a nodding acquaintance with the vast majority.

Still... when I put on the uniform of a server, including the funny-looking paper hat, I became... invisible.

Maybe it didn't bother me at first, not right away. I don't remember why I was filling in or whether it was a weekday or a weekend but I'm certain I was happy to get that $1.75 an hour or whatever princely sum was offered for this service.

But, after awhile, it began to grate on me. People -- people I knew -- were merely pointing at trays and waiting for me to ladle out the item selected. Point, scoop, plop. Perhaps a grunt or two was made. But there was no flash of recognition -- no acknowledgment, even, that the person passing out the chow -- me! -- was anything more than an automaton.

Increasingly irritated, I began to greet people by name. There was a visible, and painful, delay, while the person greeted processed the hearing of his or her name, looked up to see where the noise had come from, and eventually figured out that someone that he or she knew was speaking. An embarrassed flush would follow and perhaps a stammered acknowledgment. But if I said nothing, no one said anything to me. Point, scoop, plop. Point, scoop, plop.

I hated this.

And I learned a valuable lesson. I never again merely pointed and grunted when I was on the other side of the line. I made eye contact. I said hello or good evening or howyadoin'. I would get a smile in return, a nod, a hello. This was good. I'd also get bigger portions. This was often a mixed blessing.

Now we move up to the present day. Anyone who has been to Chicago's Loop knows there are often beggars on every corner. In the warmer weather, there are often beggars in the middle of the block, too. There are also StreetWise vendors -- not beggars, these are persons who may be homeless, but who are selling the magazine as their job.

In the Bible we are told that, at the end of days, Jesus will come back and separate people into two categories, saved and condemned, the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be saved because, when Jesus was hungry, they gave Him food to eat; when He was thirsty, they gave Him drink; when He was naked, they clothed Him. The goats will be confused. He will tell them that they denied Him food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, clothes when He had nothing to wear. The goats will cry out -- when did we see You hungry or thirsty and fail to give You food or drink? And Jesus will tell them that whatever you did for the least of My brothers, that was what you did, or didn't do, for Me.

If that's really the way to get into heaven, it is a frightening thought. Because I can't buy a magazine from everyone, and I can't (and wouldn't) give money to every bum on the street. (Many times you know that any money provided would just go for booze or possibly drugs.) But there is something I can do. I hope it's enough.

I can say hello. I can make eye contact. I can say 'not today, thanks' to the StreetWise vendor. There are bums that are pushy. If you make eye contact with such people, some of them will follow you to your destination and berate you along the way. I quickly learn not to say hello to them. But there are regulars on some corners I pass by every day. We greet one another now. I don't have spare cash to dole out but it does not matter. Or at least it does not matter much. Because people appreciate being treated as people -- and not as though they were invisible, as I was, back in the serving line in college.


Rob said...

It's kinda scary & sad how people are so pressed for time, both literally & artificially, that they rarely even take a moment to make eye contact or a nod of acknowledgment to others. The company I work for actually instituted a policy - and ran a training program in an attempt to reinforce it - that you must greet others in the hallways and other areas.

It takes so little and makes such a difference to extend that minuscule gesture towards others. For years, I've been loyal to a dry cleaners here in town simply because the ladies at the counter bothered to take note of, remember, and use my name. Knowing how this extra little effort makes me feel, I do my best to replicate that in my own dealings.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i can tell you for certain in my neck of the woods the panhandlers are addicts and alcoholics. i know from seeing them in meetings when they are clean. we know they are back "out" when we pass them on the street begging. i do not give money to them because it is enabling them. we know one that died under a bridge with a needle in his arm and his sign still in his hand. it makes me SO SAD curmy, so sad. and "you know who" has been there too. i can barely stand the thought of it. sorry... my bad.

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It sounds like a job in prison.

landgirl said...

I lived and worked in a coop dorm at IU. I also worked as a maid, so I know quite well what you mean about becoming invisible. One of the things I very much like about my new life is that things up here move slowly enough that you can (in fact it is expected)stop and talk with sales clerks and cashiers and other shoppers in the line with you. In the summer when we see folks looking lost (no one comes here in the winter..), someone will always ask if they need help and give it to them. When I was new here, folks would walk me to whatever I was trying to find rather than just tell me directions. We don't have many buskers or panhandlers or magazine sellers, but I had the opportunity to watch one day through a coffee shop window at a busker across the street. Folks put money in and brought their children to put money in and talked to the musician. That part of life up here is just great. Now if we could only do something about the wind...

Dave said...

Two things.

You reminded me of college food. To this day, I will not eat what were then called wing dings, now, with sauce, buffalo wings, or tater tots. My college in the first two years when I had to be on the food plan, had cornered the market on stunted chickens and what was left over after good things were done with potatoes.

Second, I've always had a difficult relationship, such as it can be with street people. I can afford to give them a buck; but, for the most part I don't. I know most are addicted to something or just plain lazy. I do nod and say no thanks walking past them. Usually they are hardened veterans and either look at me witheringly or continue their speil. Some have learned that "God Bless you anyway sir" line.

So, is there someone that really needed help, that I could have helped, and didn't? It bothers me now and again.

The Beach Bum said...

Curmudgeon -

As usual a very good post.

Although I don't agree with some of your commenter's comments - in particular the not giving of money to addicts (drugs or alcohol). I must agree with Rob - "
It takes so little and makes such a difference"

My reply is too long to post as a comment - so I Blogged it today.

The Beach Bum

Barb said...

I came here cuz it's my Tuesday habit, but will leave with a new outlook. Thank you for that.