Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Propriety - Wherefore Art Thou?

1:  the quality or state of being proper or suitable.
2:  conformity to what is socially acceptable in conduct or speech.
(Webster's Dictionary)
  Yes, Class, today's subject is Propriety, or the lack of it.  I am speaking of it's absence in public places, particularly in our livelihoods.
  In the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras in the United Kingdom, the stately homes or 'Great Houses' were staffed with a very elaborate hierarchy of personnel.  Each one, from the butler down to the scullery maid, maintained a level of decorum that was expected and demanded by those in authority.  And if the many period films that depict the social order of a household staff are accurate, there was a great pride in fulfilling  one's role perfectly, no matter what station they were in.
  That brings me to Today.  There are many vocations in our society but the ones that I speak of are our daily encounters with employees of businesses that have little or no pride in their task.  I am sure we can all think of many examples.
1.  I was accompanying my wife at a shop where she made a purchase and brought it to the check out.  The clerk was on the phone talking to a friend and at the same time, took the purchase, rang it up, collected the money, bagged it and handed it to my wife without any eye contact or verbal exchange, never breaking stride with her phone conversation.
2.  I have lost count how many times my air travel was interrupted by cancelled or delayed flights caused by alleged weather or equipment problems requiring many hours of waiting in terminals.  The airline staff are usually apathetic with no efforts for apologies or appeasement.
3.  At the checkout counter in the grocery store, the cashier is chatting with the bagger or adjacent cashier while I stand there feeling invisible.
4.  Leaving a car park and being berated by the attendant because I didn't tell him my method of payment quickly enough.

  I hate dwelling on the negatives but to me, doing your job well only makes sense.  Look at it this way, you are spending approximately a third of you time working, you might as well do the best you can at it, if not for your own satisfaction, at least for job security, unless you would rather be unemployed.  No matter what your job is, whether it is flipping burgers or solving the mysteries of quantum physics, be the best you can be and the possibilities may surprise you with a far reaching effect.

  The following is a true story of Kent Nerburn excelling at his job and more:

There was a time in my life twenty years ago when I was driving a cab for a living. It was a cowboy’s life, a gamblers life, a life for someone who wanted no boss, constant movement, and the thrill of a dice roll every time a new passenger got into the cab. 

What I didn't count on when I took the job was that it was also a ministry. Because I drove the night shift, the car became a rolling confessional. Passengers would climb in, sit behind me in total darkness and anonymity, and tell me of their lives. 

We were like strangers on a train, the passengers and I, hurtling through the night, revealing intimacies we would never have dreamed of sharing during the brighter light of day. 

In those hours, I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh, and made me weep. And none of those lives touched me more than that of a woman I picked up late on a warm August night. 

I was responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partyers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover or someone going off to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town. 

When I arrived at the address, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window. Under these circumstances many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a short minute, and then drive away. Too many bad possibilities awaited a driver who went up to a darkened building at two-thirty in the morning. 

But I had seen too many people trapped in a life of poverty who depended on the cab as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door to try to find the passenger. It might, I reasoned, be someone who needed my assistance. Would I not want a driver to do the same if my mother or father had called for a cab? 

So I walked to the door and knocked. 

"Just a minute", answered a frail and elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. 

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman, somewhere in her eighties, stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store or in a 1940's movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor. 

The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware. 

"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said. "I'd like a few moments alone. Then, if you could come back and help me? I'm not very strong." 

I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. 

"It's nothing", I told her. "I just try to treat 

my passengers the way I would want my mother treated". 

"Oh, you're such a good boy", she said. Her praise and appreciation were almost embarrassing. 

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?" 

"It's not the shortest way," I answered. 

"Oh, I don't mind," she said. "I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice". 

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. 

"I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor said I should go there. He says I don't have very long." 

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. "What route would you like me to go?" I asked. 

For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She made me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she would have me slow down in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing. 

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now." 

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a tar driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. Without waiting for me, they opened the door and began assisting the woman. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her: perhaps she had phone them right before we left. 

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase up to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. 

"How much do I owe you?" she asked, reaching into her purse. 

"Nothing," I said. 

"You have to make a living," she answered. 

"There are other passengers," I responded. 

Almost without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. "You gave an old woman a little moment of joy," she said. "Thank you." 

There was nothing more to say. I squeezed her hand once, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me I could hear the door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. 

I did not pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the remainder of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten a driver who had been angry or abusive or impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run or had honked once, then driven away? What if I had been in a foul mood and had refused to engage the woman in conversation? How many other moments like that had I missed or failed to grasp? 

We are so conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unawares. When that woman hugged me and said that I had brought her a moment of joy, it was possible to believe that I had been placed on earth for the sole purpose of providing her with that last ride. I do not think that I have done anything in my life that was any more important.

Nothing more I can add to that....



  1. Thanks for all the reminders

  2. Loved the account of the NYC taxi cab ride! Found this blog some time ago searching for Electronic cash register info and links.
    Thanks for your efforts and work.


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