Overlooking

Last week, while visiting my fellow-blogger Katherine in Washington, D.C., we had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. We did this because…well, because I have to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe whenever it’s an option. I just have to. Otherwise the universe could implode.

Don’t laugh. It could happen.

After dinner, we stepped out onto the corner of E and 10th Streets, and I heard a familiar song drifting toward us:

I applauded at the end of the song. Passersby were dropping tips into the man’s saxophone case. I think I made eye contact with him briefly (it was difficult to tell because of the hat, but he noticed I was taking video), and we walked back to our hotel.

When we were checking out of our hotel the next day, we passed a housekeeping staff in the hallway. She smiled, and we smiled, and said “hello.” Nothing really more than that, but hopefully enough to have some positive effect on her day.

Driving back to Virginia from D.C. that afternoon, Karen and I pulled over at a chain restaurant for dinner. We were famished. As it was still only late afternoon, the restaurant was far from crowded, and we had our choice of seats. I remember the waitress more than the food: she caught my eye. Not in a lusting sort of way, but just in the way that she made eye contact and smiled and genuinely conversed, if only in an attempt to understand our order, and was a very beautiful woman.  What leaves me a bit disconcerted this evening is that I can’t remember her name.

I can come close: I believe it was Rachel, if I had to guess. I just don’t know for certain. I’m not wondering because I wanted her number of anything juvenile like that…I’m not the unfaithful type. And, realistically, I doubt anyone would think less of me for not remembering the name of a woman who waited my table once in my life at a restaurant to which I’ll likely never return.  But it bothers me. The reason it bothers me is because she was engaging, and bright. She wore what looked like an engagement ring. I was just curious about her life, because I wanted her to be in momentary recollection as a fellow human being, not just a woman who waited my table. She has a life, a story, passions, and dreams. They’re none of my business, and I don’t really want to go so far as to know them specifically, but I want to know that she has them. I don’t ever want to forget that. Nor do I want to forget that about the sax player that gifted me with his music, or any of the other people that I encounter on a daily basis that are looked upon, whether we like to admit it or not, as lesser in station because of their jobs, their educational levels, or (God help us) their ancestry or heritage. So often, we treat them as though they were there to serve us menially…as though that were their identity, instead of their employment.

We left tips for the housekeeping staff at our hotel, as well as for the valet who parked and retrieved the car. I once heard it said that how well you tip is the measure of how good a person you are, but I don’t think that it can be reduced to a monetary value. I think that’s just a trite way by which our materialistic culture chooses to try to quantify mutual respect and engagement. We’re culturally conditioned, at the end of the day, to look over certain people, to glance past their humanity. In fact, we’re culturally conditioned to look beyond everyone’s humanity while driving, it seems. I don’t want to look on a fellow human being as being somehow less because their employment involves waiting on me at a restaurant (I’ve been on the other side of the food counter in my life…it alters your perspective), or cleaning the hotel room I’ve just used, or any number of other jobs. Jobs that are respectable employment, that earn a living, and that any of us might find ourselves doing at any point.

A professor friend once spoke to me of the city where she lived while teaching at a certain institution of higher learning. She said that, in that city of which the school took a huge part, there was a great lack of professional employment, and that it was not at all uncommon to have your table waited by someone with a PhD. In fact, I’ve known professors who worked as baristas during the evening to make ends meet. And, lest we forget, the stereotype of the actor waiting tables during the day while they try to sell the screenplay they’ve written on the side exists for a reason.

Employment is a means to an end. Certainly, being able to do what we love is an ideal situation, but all of us will have at least some period of time in which we are not able to do that. Hopefully, those moments will lead us to respect everyone regardless of their perceived position on the social ladder, and not to look down that ladder as time passes.

And, as for the artist, a saxophone solo on the corner is just as valid any symphony. The payment doesn’t have to be with money.

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