We had a customer -- he was what we call a "regular," coming in several times a week. He was an old man with a thick Polish accent and a shuffling step. With his little European-style hat and jacket, he looked like he belonged to another world.
On this particular day, he came through my line. Slowly, he set his little collection of grocery items onto my conveyor belt, and he began to talk. His accent was so thick, I could barely understand him. Once he started talking, the words did not stop. He told me about his life in his country before he came to America. He talked of wars and of a beloved wife. He talked of the struggles of adjusting to a new country and of the great hope that this new start stirred in his breast. It was better than any historical fiction story because it was real. I wished I could sit the old man down with a tape recorder, for his tale, though filled with sadness, was a great one. And my heart went out to him for the things he had lived through.
In spite of this wonderful tale, I felt a twinge of nervousness, too. A cashier's line is not the place for a long conversation. I shot a worried glance at the people waiting in line behind him. I dreaded the fidgeting and the angry looks. I dreaded the explosion of an impatient customer. The man's bill was waiting to be paid, but he had not yet reached for his wallet. I hated to interrupt him. What should I do?
At last the old man finished his broken tale and paid his bill. He walked away looking more cheerful than he had when he arrived, and I gave him a parting smile. Then I took a deep breath and turned to face the next customer.
It was a woman with dark hair, and she looked at me with full eyes. "You did the right thing," she said. "That old man is lonely, and you are probably the only person who has listened to him all day. You did the right thing."
Her kind tone took me completely by surprise. No impatience. No heavy sighs. No angry looks. No rebuking words. Just patience, love, and encouragement. Whatever she was in a hurry to do next, she put aside, just as I had, to listen to an old man.
I rang her order up with speed and precision, wishing there was some way to let her know how much I appreciated her.
Her encouragement to me continued to have a positive effect. Her words were spoken loud enough that the people behind her in line traded their fidgety expressions for ones of introspection and thoughtfulness. And I have a feeling that more than one person went about their day with a little more consideration for other people. It is for this reason that I will always remember that woman with the dark hair.
Sometimes the very best thing we can do is to slow down and listen to an old man.