How many times in a day do you hear the words thank you? Depending on the circumstances, it could be quite often. Most of the time, it’s simply a mere social requirement…a necessary courtesy with limited meaning. You hold open a door…“thank you.” You purchase groceries…“thank you.” You move out of someone’s way…“thank you.”
Over the years, many people have said “thank you” to me, but it’s mostly like that. Just something as much about affirming personal civility and feeling the comfort of an orderly world, as it is about showing appreciation. Not that it’s a bad thing. No…it’s nice to hear some thank you-s even if they are not all that heartfelt. But there was this one time when someone gave me a truly sincere thank you that rose above all the rest.
I was about seventeen at the time, and had gone into the ‘big city’ to meet up with a friend and catch a movie. It was the ‘big city’ because there was a store with an escalator to an entire second floor, and also two, (count them), movie theatres. If I remember right, the movie we went to see was “Every Which Way But Loose” which is a terrible movie by the way, unless you like that sort of thing. It was a warm sunny day, and the line in front of the ticket booth was long. We took our place.
While we waited in line on that calm and peaceful afternoon, something a little unusual happened. An odd man suddenly appeared on the sidewalk up ahead. He seemed troubled as he began pleading to various people in the line-up. I watched as each time he approached somebody, he would be ignored or turned away. I never saw such a thing before. An upset man going down a line of people, pleading, and all of them turning their backs. It was a strange sight.
I didn’t know about the homeless then…this sub-class within our society. Where I was from there were no homeless, and the one guy who did sleep out in the woods had a home. He just didn’t seem to like it very much, and only went back when the weather made him.
And at that time charities had yet to become big business, and the homeless had yet to become media pets, and people had yet to be socialized to politely condescend and patronize instead of just calling them “bums.”
It’s also possible that the man himself may have actually had a home, but just didn’t like it…much like the guy in my village. Who knows? But he was raggedy, and didn’t look like he had much of anything in this world.
So everyone was turning from him as he worked his way down the line, until he finally comes to me. He looks in my face and desperately asks, “Will you talk to me? I’m coming down from a bad trip and it’s bad. I need help.”
Well, I wasn’t naïve. I knew what a “bad trip” was. It was the 70’s. I watched T.V. So he started talking, and I started listening. I didn’t turn away because I could see he wasn’t violent or a pervert. He just needed to talk. He was in pain for the need to talk.
I don’t think I said much of anything at all. I just looked at him and listened, and he mostly talked about how bad his “bad trip” was, and how someone had given him some “bad stuff.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the ticket booth opened and the line started moving. Now as it happens, we Canadians take lines very seriously. The British taught us that. When the line moves, you must move also. So I explained to him, “Sorry, but I have to go now,” and pointed at the line. I was a little worried that he’d be sad, but to my surprise, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Thank you,” he said in a way no one had ever thanked me before…or since. “Thank you for talking to me.” That’s when I knew his feet were firmly on the ground again. His bad trip was over. He then calmly turned and walked away.
It was a sunny warm day, and someone had given me the gift of a proper ‘thank you.’ I was feeling really quite good about that when I suddenly noticed a girl from my High School coming back through the line towards me. Sensible-clothes-wearing-educated-parents-good-marks-never-in-trouble-with-the-teachers-didn’t-even-say-a-swear-word-girl. Why would she walk back through a line that was moving forward? Had the British taught her nothing?
So, she comes up to me all icky-giddy-Gladys-Kravitz-like and asks, “What did he say to you?”
“He was coming down from a bad trip and needed to talk. That’s all.”
“And you talked to him?” She spit out the words ‘you’ and ‘him’ like we were both trash to be cast out. She wanted me to feel ashamed for having talked to that man. She wanted to feed upon that shame…exalt herself upon that shame. I’d seen it before in others.
I didn’t reply, but just kept moving in the line. I never did tell her how much she filled me with disgust…this girl who I knew to be a long standing member of the High School Christian Club. What would be the point? I learned early on that when people don’t want to know, they can’t even begin to understand.