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The Ladies Who (Serve) Lunch

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I've always been candid with you, dear readers. To a fault, sometimes. So before we even begin, I've got to disclose something. I was voted "Class Apple Polisher" in high school. And for those of you who read my last piece and saw my baby picture, this probably comes as no surprise.

Yes, I was a brown-noser, a suck-up, a kiss-ass, one of those kids. In a graduating class of under a hundred kids, it wasn't that hard to distinguish myself. I ingratiated myself with teachers and administrative staff because I appreciated them, and because they were genuinely nice and decent people. I gave myself my own mailbox in the high school main office, ate lunch from time to time with our secretaries. I loved Ms. Rosa, Ms. Tucker, Ms. Lazina, Mr. Shackelton, Ms. Condon, and Ms. Meyer. Hell, maybe even Mr. Budine.

I grew up in a tiny town in the valley of big mountains under bigger skies. Walton, New York is a town where you left your keys in the car when you ran into the grocery store, where it was okay to go to sleep at night with an unlocked door. And it's in those small places, sometimes you can learn big lessons.

So let's flash back fully to 2002 in June. I was at a high school graduation party for a classmate, my last before moving out of the Catskills and down to New Jersey to prepare for college. I was sad to be leaving my friends and everything I'd known, but I'd refrained from tears. I was in the buffet line at the firehouse, eager to eat and sit down. I felt a tap on my shoulder as I loaded food onto my tray. I turned to see Sherry Murphy, the woman who'd served my high school lunch to me every day for the prior four years. And I mean, every day, because I had perfect attendance. (Can you see where the "Apple Polisher" title was a natural?)

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Ms. Murphy pointed at my tray, looked at me in the eyes and said, "You always did love the carrot sticks." And I immediately felt my face get hot, my eyes stinging and blinking back tears.

As children, it was Mr. Rogers who told us to "look for the helpers" in times of trouble. Sometimes those helpers are police officers or firemen, or neighbors in sweaters and tennis shoes. And sometimes those helpers are just wearing a hairnet, standing behind a half-wall of glass to see you grow up, and to say goodbye in a way you can't even begin to process until you're a grown-up yourself.

I've tried to keep Ms. Murphy in my heart as I've moved through college and beyond, into my professional and personal life. I try to know the names of the people that are delivering my mail (Frank), or making my sandwich (Jill at Wawa), or cleaning our offices at work when we all go home to our families at five (Great work, Vaselenka). I've come to terms with the idea of being an Apple Polisher, that it's okay to say thank you to people whose jobs result in my life being a little easier, fuller, and cleaner.

It's a bit of a shock to the system when you start to think about the enormous courtesy crisis in which we find ourselves. New York is a busy, busy city. We're all far too busy to take time to learn about each other, unless it helps us to gain in some way. In a bright, flashing, neon city, the gentleman behind the deli counter didn't know how to respond when I said "Thank you for making my breakfast."

In a world where we're taught that "good fences make good neighbors," we've clung to the irrational rationale that the highest fence must, then, be the best. We tend to lose sight of minutia, when it's often the sprig of rosemary that makes the best soup. Or the carrot sticks on our tray that make a meal complete. Or a tap on the shoulder from a woman whose name is too easy to forget.

My idea? Revolutionary. Hold the door an extra second in the Port Authority, even if it makes you one extra second later in your day. Look someone in the eyes when you're making a purchase, and say thank you. When you pass someone at work and ask how they are, actually listen. Give your high school secretary a call on Administrative Professional's Day and wish them well. Small investment, big pay-off. Even if the pay-off isn't for you.

I think the world might be a bit gentler, a bit kinder, and a bit easier if we all learned to polish an extra apple or two. And at the end of the day, when we're in bed thinking about the next day ahead of us, about the grind and the pressure and the piles of things to be moved from the "to-do" to "done" pile, it only makes us more human and more whole to realize that the people around us are doing the exact same thing in their own beds. Janitors and cafeteria workers and librarians and teachers and waiters and the billions of people on this giant and beautiful rotating rock of ours each have their own story, and to think that ours is the only one that matters seems like a pretty lonely venture.

Selfies are great. But isn't the picture so much more interesting when you point the camera the other way? Hashtag rhetorical.

So as we say goodbye for the day, dear readers, you're probably wondering how Ms. Murphy is doing. After losing her husband a few years ago, she started her own booth at the Delaware County Fair. It's called Murph's Sinfully Delicious Deep Fried Treats, and it is every bit as delicious as advertised. She's got Oreos, PB&J sandwiches, Twinkies, Peppermint Patties, just about anything you can think of. Just tell her what you want, and she'd be happy to serve you. She loves working at the fair every year because she gets to see all the kids from high school who have now grown up and started their own families.

So the next time you find yourself in Walton, let her know I was thinking about her.

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We don't always learn from our teachers. We learn from the storytellers all around us. And I've learned this. Happiness isn't glamour, or fortune, or fame. It's as easy as life. And as simple as carrot sticks.

That's good enough for me. Thanks, Ms. Murphy.