Either I’ve got a face that somehow makes strangers feel compelled to confide their innermost troubles, or someone snuck in one night while I was sleeping and wrote “Tell Me What’s Wrong” on my forehead in ink that’s invisible in the mirror.
Don’t misunderstand – lending an ear, a shoulder, encouragement and a big hug is one of my trademarks as a good friend, and it has been at least since my days at Boston U when my friends identified me as the least screwed-up and made me, de facto, the go-to problem solver. Whether I’ve actually ever felt that way or not, I’ve always been perceived as the one who has her sh*t together. And while I don’t honestly think I’ve really got it together better than anyone else I know (apparently what I am good at is portraying that I’ve got my sh*t together – “easy-breezy” is how one friend always describes me), by nature I’m always willing to be strong and help out my friends in any way I can.
But just what is it that makes strangers pour out their souls to me? Two episodes in the last week stand out as examples. The first was my housekeeper, a nice lady from Brazil who comes for a few hours almost every weekday to straighten up, vacuum, and tackle the inconceivable amount of laundry my boys generate. I am very easy to work for – on day one, I told her what I’d like done and from then on, I’ve left her alone and let her do her thing. I had the same working relationship with my last housekeeper, who was with us for eight years before we moved. We exchange a pleasant hello and goodbye every day, but for the most part we co-exist in my house and each of us gets her work done. Late last week, I was running to a meeting, and had my arms full of rolled-up house plans, file folders, notebooks, pocketbook and keys. I quickly passed through the mudroom/laundry area, where she was folding clothes on my way to the garage door, and I smiled, bid quick tidings and wished her a nice day. “Oh,” she replied, “I hope it gets better. My back is hurting.” Yikes. I just don’t have it in me to say, “Oh, that’s too bad. G’bye.” So I bit, holding this heaping load of meeting materials, and listened for the next 10 minutes to her troubles with her back, her son, his education, her mother in Brazil, yadda yadda yadda, And I nodded sympathetically. Because what else was I going to do?
The next day was one of those gorgeous, warm spring treats we enjoyed last week, and I thought it would be a perfect time to get my beach parking sticker from the Rec Department. I drove over to Longshore, proud of myself for downloading and completing all the requisite forms and remembering to grab a couple of checks. There were a few of us in line, and everyone was in a particularly jovial mood, kissed by the warm sunshine and beautiful trees and flowers. I got up to the counter, and greeted the Rec Department lady at her station with a smile and a hello. “You must be so busy this week, bringing happiness to so many people in Town,” I offered. “Well, I wish I was as happy as everyone who comes in.” Uh-oh. What was I to do? Stand right in front of her and ignore her comment while she went through our paperwork, wrote out and laminated our handpasses and car passes, and processed my payment? So I spent the next 15 minutes –while she worked intermittently – listening to the problem with her special-needs son’s teacher, and how she was going to have a blowout of a meeting with her the next day. She vented about the principal at her kids’ school, and I heard all about her other two children and one of their t-ball schedules. Oy. At least she was cheerier when I left; I guess she just needed to let it all out.
I cringe when I see other folks condescend and treat service people subserviently. We all share human status – I am no “better” than someone who does a job or task for me. It struck me as nauseatingly pretentious on one episode of Real Housewives of NY when Bethenny introduced LuAnn to their driver as “LuAnn” and LuAnn was appalled, insisting upon being introduced to “the help” as “Mrs. de Lesseps” in the future. (Awfully big of her not to insist on being introduced as “The Countess.”) I am “Andrea” to everyone. That’s my name, and it has been all my life. No reason for anyone to call me anything more formal. I wasn’t a “Mrs” and I wasn’t a “Reiser” until 15 years ago, so I’ll stay with the name given to me at birth. And I absolutely don’t have “staff.” I have been fortunate to have had nice people help me with housekeeping and childcare over the years. But they’re not my staff. They’re good, hardworking people with lives and families.
I’ll never forget a day last fall when our doorbell rang on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon. It was the “Sunday housekeeper” for the people who live across the street. She had been working in the house, alone, and locked herself out when she stepped outside. She was in a complete panic. “Mrs.” was apparently going to be very angry with her. She had come in from the Bronx, where she lives, and didn’t have train fare back. She used our phone to call some of the other “staff” who had the day off to let her back into the house, but no one was available. She apparently called “Mrs.” on her cell phone but couldn’t reach her either. We gave her a sweatshirt, and told her to come back if she needed train fare. A while later, “Mrs” called back the unfamiliar phone number she saw on her cell. I answered and tried to explain what had happened. She spoke to me like I was “staff” myself. No wonder the poor Sunday housekeeper was terrified. We never got the sweatshirt back; presumably “Mrs.” told the poor girl never to return. But the weekday housekeeper came over the next day to drop off a little token of appreciation from “Mrs.” Isn’t that sweet? Yeah. Sickeningly.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. It’s much more an observation and less of a complaint that strangers seem to want to tell me their troubles. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure out what makes me seem like such a sympathetic figure. But if a smile and a pleasant word or two of encouragement can make someone’s day more bearable, I’m up for sparing a few minutes of my time.