If you know me, or if you’ve even read much that I’ve written, then you know that not much in life makes me nervous. Last night, for the first time in longer than I can remember, I was nervous – honest-to-goodness, heart-racingly nervous.
I also seem to know an inordinate number of people who work at convenience stores (due in part to that whole “name” thing).
Lately, my days have been so full that I’ve been heading to the gym between midnight and 2:00 AM. Last night was one such night, and on my way, I stopped at a convenience store to grab some quick energy boosters (strawberries and a chocolate milk). When I entered, the radio was blaring some too-loud infomercial, barely intelligible through the thick static of the station. The line of patrons at the counter was held up and continuing to grow longer while a large man was grumbling over at the ATM machine, where he’d needed to withdraw cash for his small purchase, since the debit card swipe was currently frozen for some reason. It felt chaotic. But this is not what made me nervous.
Christy was working the register alone. Her hair had been quickly pulled up wet, and she had no makeup on. She was visibly frazzled. In fact, she was exclaiming aloud that she felt she was having a panic attack.
People in the line either reached into pockets to produce cash, or began to leave in a huff. When I got to the counter, there were still a few people behind me. It didn’t seem like a good time to try to say much to Christy. After I was rung up, I quietly stepped away from the counter and stood to the side near the stacks of canned soda.
One way or another, after several minutes, the line had died down and, for the moment, I was the only customer left in the store. Tears hovered in Christy’s eyes at this point and she gripped the edge of the counter, breathing out in a woosh. I hadn’t said anything all the while. After a beat, Christy gave me an attempted smile and said, “Come outside with me while I have a cigarette.” I did.
While she smoked, I acknowledged how crazy that stretch had been. She gave an exasperated sigh of agreement between drags. I suggested that, when she went back in, I stand guard at the counter while she turn that static-ridden station off as a first step toward bringing some calm into her space. She snuffed out her cigarette on the window ledge and headed back in. “You don’t mind?” was all she said. I smiled and shook my head, that no, I didn’t mind.
When Christy returned from the back room, infomercials now silenced, words came in a torrent. “I just don’t know how things could get any worse,” she said, busying herself behind the counter in that way people do when they don’t quite know what to do with themselves. “It’s not just this place. My car got plowed into last week while I was at work and it’s totaled. I have no way to fix it. I have to be out of my place by tomorrow and I have no place to go.” She went on to tell me the messy details surrounding the apartment situation, the landlord, restraining orders and more. “I really don’t know what to do. I have no money for first, last and security anywhere. I’m not from here, so I have no friends. My mom’s on disability, so I can’t stay with her. I just – I want to go find a bridge somewhere and just jump. Only now you can’t anymore, because they all have nets.”
I hadn’t said anything all the while. There wasn’t really much I could say. After a few more moments of silence, I simply said, “Don’t jump. People who jump never get to find out that a week later, it all would have worked out.”
More late-night customers came in and Christy gave me the gracious out. “Well, I should let you go. Thanks for listening anyway. It’s something, and it’s more than most people do.”
“I know there is nothing I can really do, but I’m sorry you are going through all this right now,” I said. “Just promise me – no jumping.”
“No, no, I know. I’m not gonna,” she said, smiling wanly. “I’m just talking, getting it out.”
I gave her a little smile in return and then headed out to my car.
For a few minutes, as I drove to the gym, I did try to consider whether there was anything I could do. Did I know anyone who could put her up, any other acquaintances in town who might be looking for a roommate? But I soon realized that there truly wasn’t anything I could do about Christy’s situation. And I know I cannot fix people’s problems anyway. I hoped that taking the time to listen did a little good at least.
A couple of hours later, I was on my way home from the gym. I would need to pass the convenience store again, and I figured I’d stop in and at least check in on Christy once more. Maybe the gesture would be an encouragement.
If you read my last post, you know that I sing. Recently, I’ve been stoking that fire again where music and songwriting are concerned. On top of that, I’d just encouraged my new friend Jed, as a means of combating writer’s block, to try doing new or unfamiliar things that get your adrenaline up. And I’ve been doing a lot with my book lately, which has this as its opening quote:
Courage is doing
what you’re afraid to do.
There can be no courage
unless you’re scared.
WWI flying ace
It was on this foundation that the absurd idea hit me of a small but personal way I might be able to encourage Christy.
Now, honestly, I’ve sung in front of large crowds. That does not make me especially nervous. But singing for one person I barely know, in the middle of a convenience store at 2:30 AM? My heart rate doubled as I began to imagine it, and I immediately began to talk myself out of it.
It would make her uncomfortable.
She’d just think you were showing off.
What if other customers came in?
Yeah, it’s a dumb idea.
End of story.
Only, as I got closer to the corner where the convenience store was, the idea wouldn’t let up. Something that reminds her of simpler times and childhood and innocence and hope for the future.
I pulled in and parked. I knew what the song would be, if I got the nerve: Over the Rainbow.
I went in and I’m not lying to you – my heart was racing like I’d just sprinted. I could feel it in my ears.
You can’t tell people to take positive social risks if you aren’t willing to do it yourself.
For 2:30 in the morning, there were still quite a few customers in and out. Obviously, I wasn’t going to sing with other people in there, which was just as well. I asked Christy how she was doing. I stepped aside as the three customers currently in the store checked out. I noticed that Christy had gotten her makeup together since last I’d been in, and she did seem much improved. She smiled more brightly than before. She’s fine, I tried to convince myself.
When she’d rung out the last of the customers at the counter, she said she appreciated my coming back to check up on her. It was then that I realized – no one was left in the store. No cars pulling in. It was now or never.
“So …” I started in. And with that, I was committed. “While I was driving, I was trying to see if there was anything I could do to help make things even a little better for you.” Ears pounding. “And I realize there really isn’t. But I did think of one silly little thing I could give you. A song.”
Christy’s face was perplexed, a mix between stifled laughter, utter curiosity and smelling dog doo.
“Yeah, this is weird,” I said. “I hope it doesn’t embarrass you, but – I sing. And I thought, ‘When is the last time Christy had someone sing her a song?’”
“Um … like, never!” Christy blurted, clearly still feeling awkward.
Now, I should pause and add that the kids I mentor decided long ago that, if I had a superpower, it would be creating awkward moments – and then resolving them. Well, if that is true (and it likely is), this was my time to go for it and “be super.”
“So …” Christy said, breaking the silence, “what’re you gonna sing for me?”
“Something I hope will remind you that things will get better.” I still couldn’t believe that not a soul had come in.
With that, I closed my eyes. And I sang. All the self-consciousness faded. It seemed like the simplest of gifts. I can’t remember the last time I sang as freely.
When I finished, I quirked my mouth to the side and looked sideways at Christy with a smirk. She had wet eyes, her hands pressed flat against her chest. She shook her head back and forth, then up and down, but didn’t say anything. After a couple of seconds, she just said, “Thank you. Really. You’re a good friend.”
A police officer came in just then, followed by a few college students. And that was that.
But as you’ve probably come to expect, that whole story – is also about you.
Each of our comfort zones is different. The kind of risk it takes to really give me a *zing* may be quite different from what it takes to give you the same feeling of being stretched.
I was tempted to make a list of suggestions, but you know what you can do. The trick is to find creative ways to use what you can do in ways that will take you to a new place of courage and connection with others. Things that challenge us and make our heart race – are good things. They remind us that we are alive and vital and able to make a difference in the world.
The possibilities are really endless. And no matter what, we all have a voice that can be used to take risks, bring comfort and encouragement to the people around us, and remind us what life is really all about.