Monday, May 01, 2006

Wipe that smile off your face!

I had to chuckle the other day when I opened the paper and read the plight of Boston resident Deborah Elizabeth Finn.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly what Ms. Finn wanted me to do.
Deborah Elizabeth Finn (a perfect name, by the way, for someone who lives in Boston) has posted a pledge on asking everyone to do what she does – smile and say hello to passing strangers on the street. Ms. Finn, it seems, thinks people are just too darn grumpy. Then again, Bostonians live in a city that’s home to a construction project known as “The Big Dig,” which was started about the time Paul Revere announced that the British were coming. The last I heard, the Big Dig was scheduled for completion shortly after an asteroid obliterates the earth – give or take a few years.
It appears Finn’s idea is picking up steam. Already 68(!) fellow residents have signed her pledge. Some gave their full names. Way to go, John Hoang Sarvey and Cynthia Carr Gardner (again, great Boston names!) Others like “Lyn” and “Sarah” gave only their first names, probably out of fear of having their asses kicked by residents who don’t share Finn’s sentiment.
Well today I tried Finn’s approach. And the following is my report.

Dear Deborah Elizabeth Finn: How is your campaign going? Did you greet lots of strangers today? Me too! I started this morning by greeting the bus driver who drives my nine year old to school. Normally I’d never lay eyes on the bus driver since my daughter gets picked up a mere block from our house. But we both know that sexual predators can be lurking just about anywhere and nobody in my neighborhood wants to take the risk of letting our kids out of our sight. So after my daughter had boarded, I smiled at the bus driver, mostly out of relief that my little girl had made it onto the bus safely. I just hope the driver has had a thorough criminal background check.
My next object of facial affection was the stranger behind the counter at the gas station. I gave him a smile although it was through gritted teeth since I was paying him 85 bucks for a tank full of gas. And the “full” part is a stretch. The gas gauge needle swayed away from the ‘f’ shortly after I left the parking lot. But who cares? The point is, I smiled at the attendant. I felt good because a smile is a universal gesture, understood in any language. Even to the Pakistani gentleman behind the counter who spoke zero English.
Next it was off to the mall, as I needed some new summer clothes. You would have been so proud of me, Ms. Finn! I smiled at the stranger working in the men’s clothing department. Problem was, I don’t think he saw me because he was too busy yakking on his cell phone, oblivious to the fact that I had three items in my hand waiting to be purchased. Once he hung up, he rolled his eyes repeatedly upon realizing that I wanted to (GASP!) exchange an item. Apparently this transaction fell well outside his line of expertise, leading to his advanced state of annoyance. But I continued smiling in spite of my overpowering urge to take the pins out of newly bought clothing and stick them in his eyeballs.
Well, nothing makes me hungrier than shopping so it was off to a fast food drive through. I didn’t smile when I was ordering a “number three with a diet Coke.” Remember, a smile first requires eye contact and it's impossible to make eye contact with somebody talking through the other end of a muffled speaker. But upon pulling around, I gave a big smile to the stranger in the window, who took my money and handed me a “number six with coffee.” I hate to admit this but my smile faded ever so slightly when I told her the order was wrong. She immediately corrected it by handing me decaf coffee. I believe I was still smiling when I pulled away 10 minutes later. Oh, and I also smiled at the restaurant manager who came to the window probably because he wanted to know why everybody behind me was leaning on their horns.
Next it was off to the airport to catch a flight to San Francisco. Lots of strangers in an airport, right? What better place to put the Finn pledge to good use? I smiled at the first Transportation Security Administration official I encountered while she compared my photo with the name on my ticket and decided that yes, it was the same person. I smiled at the second TSA official, standing just 10 feet away from the first one, who checked my ID and ticket again. And I smiled at the third TSA official, standing just 20 feet away, who, you guessed it, repeated the process. None of these people smiled back, by the way.
I emptied the contents of my pockets into the gray bin and gave a big smile to the stranger manning the metal detector. Upon seeing my smile, he immediately pulled me aside for private screening. Smiling apparently raises a red flag among airport security personnel. To them a smile means, “I am carrying box cutters in my carry on and my gleeful look is only a front to distract you.”
But I wasn’t deterred, Ms. Finn! I smiled at the fifth TSA employee – the one with the rubber gloves who asked me if I had any “sensitive areas” before he patted me down. I’ll admit he gave me a strange look when I smiled while he patted my inner thigh. But obviously this guy has never been to your web site.
Walking through terminal three at O’Hare I smiled at everybody including the courtesy cart driver who nearly ran me over, the college student who would find out very soon that his backpack would no way in Hell fit in the overhead bin, and the gate agent who told me to “sit down sir,” because there were no first-class upgrades available. At least she called me sir.
I boarded the plane and smiled at the stranger next to me. Might as well be friendly since our elbows and shoulders would be touching for the next four hours, right? I thought I remember reading something about how American Airlines had reconfigured their planes to offer “more room.” Must have read that in the Enquirer. My seatmate didn’t smile back because he was pecking away on his laptop.
I had one more chance to smile – at the flight attendant who served me my four ounces of diet Coke and the bag of Pretzels which constituted my in-flight meal. Guess what? She smiled back. Of course I think this was because she knew she only had two more rows to serve and then her “workday” would be over.
Now I’m in San Francisco, about to turn out the lights in my hotel room. I’ll be in Boston in three weeks and I hope we get a chance to meet. I’ll know it’s you, Ms Finn. You’ll be the stranger giving me a big smile.
And I will be the guy who responds, “eat me!”


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