by Laura Sillerman | bio

Once upon a time, there was a sour woman who worked in an upscale bakery/coffee shop where the latte people who were in a hurry came in and growled because the sour woman growled at them.

“Yes?” she would growl when they stepped up to the counter.

“Large latte, skim,” is all they would say back.

She would cast her eyes down without acknowledging their desires and would slowly move to the big espresso machine and slowly make the hot beverage and slowly put the top on and slowly return to the counter.

“Anything else?”

“Sticky bun,” the latte person would say, or, more likely, “No-fat bran muffin.”

Money would be exchanged, a small amount of change would grudgingly be put in the tip jar, and the sour woman and the latte person would go on with their days, not one bit lighter or more enlightened for having seen one another.

Now, it came to pass that the holiday season snuck into the city where all of this happened day after day. Bright lights were strung on street-smudged brick, and a kind of shine was put on the mornings that were normally so gray.

On one of these mornings a customer went into the bakery she usually avoided (she couldn’t bear the growl of the sour woman and she didn’t drink lattes). Something on this morning was different: The woman behind the counter was smiling. No, she was more than smiling. She was grinning.

The customer was taken aback and did the only thing she could do. She grinned back.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” said the woman behind the counter, minus a growl. “May I help you?”

Still grinning, the customer gave her order. And when it came back quickly from the woman (who was still grinning, too), the customer said, “I hope you have a very good day.”

“Oh, you have a nice day too,” came the reply.

Money was exchanged, a large amount was put into the tip jar, and the woman walked out into the brightly lit morning feeling lighter than she had when she walked in and somewhat enlightened and very chastened.

I am an older person, thought the woman. I know enough to give what I hope to get. I should have been smiling at that woman behind the counter all along.

So, this is the story of a moment in a season that is usually about buying and rushing and more than a little complaining. It’s about a grin that stole the season away from its usual tempo and terms. In the end, as with most stories, it’s about what is ours to change.

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  • Dr. Pat Allen December 15, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Everyday I play a game with most of the people I meet whose names and lives I generally know nothing about. I have been playing this game for years. I call it The Giving Game. It is a game only in the sense that I feel like I have added something to the score of life when I get it right.
    I strike up real conversations with the newspaper purveyor, the shoe repairman, the locksmith, all taxi and town car drivers, porters and service people in the hospital, the guards at the gates of all our citadels. I stop and notice. And, in my own Southern way, I get personal, just get right to it.
    I work on consciously making the experience of the people who travel far everyday to make life easier for all of us here in this busy anonymous city just a bit better for a moment. Even though I nearly always get the warmth and attention back, that is not the point.
    I believe that the gift of noticing another in a clearly positive way is passed on to the next few people that interact with each person with whom I have shared a real exchange. I know the world could be changed this way.
    My son is now 29. He is a master at the Giving Game. When he was a child he gave part of his small allowance each week to the man who still panhandles on our street. Some years after, he was accosted by some larger boys and he was protected by this man. I see this man almost daily near my office. He always asks about “his boy” with a large grin. “My boy Ashley,” he says, “When is he coming back?”
    My son genuinely cares about those who most people do not notice. To know that I have a son who will pass on The Giving Game is the best gift of all.