the guy at the top

Earlier this month, in a post entitled “tabloid,” I tried to give a perspective on the rich and famous (using Britney Spears as an example), and the fact that, regardless of their income or occupation, they are real people just like you and me – and thus worthy of the kindness and courtesy we would want for ourselves.  But Hollywood is not the only bastion of untouchables.  My observation has been that, from police to the the President, anyone holding a position higher than our own is often treated as less than “real” – guilty by association with a tailored suit or a uniform.

Today has been over 100°, so what better time to tell a story about – snow.

Late into the night some years back, I was driving home along a winding back road during a full-on blizzard.  Plows had not been out.  The snow barraging the windshield gave the effect of  traveling at warp speed in outer space.  In actuality, had I been going any slower, I wouldn’t have had enough traction to keep moving.  One more tight turn – and that ethereal, scintillating feeling flooded up through my stomach and chest as the car slid out of my control.  Despite valiant efforts at cranking the wheel back and forth, I made impact and was three tires into a snow bank.  Could be worse, I told myself.  Could have been a telephone pole.

I did everything I could think of.  Rocking back and forth.  Gunning forward, then back.  Putting cloth under the tires for traction.  It was no good.  The snow was just too deep and wet.

It was past midnight and this road was deserted.

After about a half hour, I saw headlights approaching.  Would they stop?  I stood outside on the far side of my car, waving my arms overhead, donning my friendliest and most disarming smile.  The car passed by me going no more than 10 MPH without stopping or so much as gracing me with a turn of heads.

I got back into my car, soaked through.

Again, headlights approached.  And, again, I waved.  This time, they stopped!  It was a pick-up truck – good sign.  The man was empathetic and accommodating.  And he had a tow cable.  I was saved.

As he busied himself with attaching the cable to his vehicle, I thanked him profusely and asked, “So, do you wind up towing people out a lot in this kind of weather?”

“I’ve done it my fair share of times,” he assured me, grinning amiably.  Then he took the other end to my car and had me pop the trunk.  I sat in the driver’s seat, out of the relentless snow for a moment, ready to put the car into neutral.  Soon, the trunk lowered and the man gave me the thumbs up.

I put the car into neutral and turned the wheels hard to the right.  Once in his truck, the man backed up, drawing the slack of the cable and then –

An awful, grinding noise overlapped the crunch of snow as I was pulled loose.  It all seemed to happen through marshmallow.  But I saw and felt my trunk letting go in a way that set my teeth on edge.

The car was free.  I came out to find the trunk pulled sideways off its hinges at an impossibly contorted angle.  The heavy, wet snow was rapidly filling the inside of my trunk, piling up on its contents.  In shock, my eyes traced the cable to where it now hung down.  The man had not secured the cable to the frame of the car itself, but to the flimsy latch of the trunk lid!

He was now out of his truck and walking toward me, looking obviously disturbed.  I didn’t know quite what to do.  I know he had tried to help, but — he’d ruined my car win the process.  As graciously as I could manage, I thanked him.  And then asked if we could swap information.  Immediately, he started backing away.  Almost running.  “Oh, dude,” he sputtered, “I was trying to help.  I don’t want to get involved in an insurance claim.  Good luck.”  And with that, he got in his truck, backed up and turned off in the opposite direction.  His plate was frosted in with snow.  I had no information.

Once home, I did my best to drape blankets over the gaping maw of the trunk and its contents while the blizzard continued pounding.  The next day, I called my insurance company.  I’ll spare you the details of the next week, but it was the constant runaround.  I’d read every word of the policy coverage material, and was sure this should be covered – either by comprehensive or as vandalism.  The counterarguments I got from representatives – when they returned my calls at all – were ludicrous.  Nonsensical.  They just didn’t want to pay.  Finally, I told the last supervisor that I felt I had no choice but to write to the man at the top – the president of this national company.  She assured me smugly that he would just tell me the same thing she and all the others had, and welcomed me to go ahead and write him.

And I did.

I explained the details and the events thus far in dealing with the representatives.  I explained to the man that I had carried his company’s insurance for more than 15 years without incident, and yet the amount being denied to me now was not even $300.00.  I was not unkind or rude.  He’d had nothing to do with the goings-on to that point.  Rather, I spoke to him as one real person to another, and asked if he might personally look into the claim for me.

One week later, I received a reply.  It was personally written from the president.  He was very apologetic, expressing his concern about the way the claim had been handled thus far and that I’d not been treated as a valued, long-term customer.  He agreed with my assessment of the incident, as well as my understanding of the policy coverage clauses.  Folded into the letter was a check for more than I’d asked.  He ended his letter inviting me to call him directly if I ever had another issue with a claim.

Wow.  I sent him a thank you card immediately.

Imagine where I’d have been if I’d just believed that the “guy at the top” is always disinterested.  Aloof.  Only in it for the money he’s making.

Just yesterday, I read some media about a large, well-known corporation that is going under due to the economy and changes in the market.  For some reason, I felt real compassion for the president/CEO.  He seemed truly saddened by the closure, by all accounts I’d read.  It did not strike me as though a slick marketing department were writing for him.  His words felt real to me.

I did some quick research.  The man is 51.  He’s been through years of struggle trying to right the company, and what seems a downright intense last couple of months, only to see all his efforts come to naught.  I imagined the weight he must bear, with thousands of nationwide employees losing jobs.  Of the media blaming him for not doing this or that as they felt it should have been done.  And, no matter how much money he was making, how does the CEO of a major corporation – one that goes under in the public spotlight while on his watch – go about finding the next job?

The idea popped into my head to write him a personal note, expressing my regret, encouraging him a bit, and wishing him well.  Finding a valid email for him, however, was not easy.  I tried one.  It was returned.  I searched a different route and finally came up with another, which seemed to be a personal email.

Does all of this sound strange?  People don’t just “drop a line” to head honchos like that, you’re thinking.  And even if they did, the guy’s not going to read it among all the other important communiques flooding his inbox.  Besides, I’m sure he’s figured out a way to pad his pockets with a nice, big sum before the card house comes down.  He doesn’t need some stranger’s pep talk.

Maybe you’re right.  But I sent it anyway.  It was brief but heartfelt.  I just expressed that, while I’m sure people are pointing fingers, he is very much a real guy and must be personally saddened.  I affirmed that no one else is in his shoes, and therefore in no position to judge.  I encouraged him to use this transition to consider what his dreams are, and to pursue those now.

This morning at 6:30, I had a reply.  The man was very personal, extending his appreciation of my perspective on things, and thanking me sincerely for taking the time to share my thoughts.

Nice man, I thought.  Just another person like me, who can use a kind word once in a while.

After reading this, I could not get one more thought out of my head.  But sending another email – might seem like stalking or something.  I set it aside.

Still, the thought wouldn’t go away.  And I’ve learned to go with those persistent thoughts in life.  So I replied, again briefly.  In short, I suggested that he take some time off to rest.  Regroup.  Spend uninterrupted time with his family.  Travel for sheer pleasure.  Maybe watch some old comfort movies and sunsets.  And I encouraged him to do this without guilt, exclaiming that it wasn’t selfish – it was necessary.  Because he’s just a real guy who needs a break for a while.  I ended by joking that I was sure his mother had already told him as much, but that it never hurt to have someone else reiterate it.

Again, within minutes, he’d sent a reply, thanking me for the insight and agreeing that this is what he should – and will – do.

I felt happy, not that I’d managed to get a reply from a bigwig, but because I’d taken a chance on encouraging someone that seemed beyond reach – someone that perhaps most people saw as beyond reach, and who therefore might not receive much encouragement otherwise.

Rich or poor, famous or obscure, we are all just people doing whatever it is we do.  The police officer parked on the side of the road plays with his kids on the trampoline when he has days off.  The judge can’t wait til Sunday to make his famous chili for the family barbeque.  The President laughs at cartoons and sometimes has a stomachache and secretly likes jimmies on his ice cream.

So try your hardest to remember that the guy at the top – is still just a guy.

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