A Heart for Fashion

Crammed between the luxurious walls of the elite shopping experience were lines of desperation. Amidst the heat of August, in midtown Manhattan, a sea of tired arms and legs stretched far back into the recesses of an H&M store whose men’s section flirted with adequacy—adequacy being an uncanny phenomenon tantamount to the discovery of a singing unicorn. Most that occupied the second floor that day were fashionistas; others, the followers of fashionistas; and others still, had come to assume the simple role of “clothing rack” for the shopaholic in their lives. And then there was me; all I needed was a few professional articles necessary to make it through an interview without incident—that incident being continued unemployment. With patience, we stood clinging to dreams, waiting for the chance to own a piece of our lives not yet fully realized. It was those purchases that continually escaped the greatness of our potential on the racks and shelves around us, and we had come to claim them.

Bending at the hip, I leaned far outside a line of vision crowded with the heads in front of me. At the front of the line, beyond the din of frustrated exhales, was a single cashier whose work ethic might have brewed a single cup of coffee in about 100 years. Her pace was so painstaking slow, that I had briefly entertained the thought of accepting unemployment, and therefore, possible financial ruin in exchange for freedom from this line. As time drew on, I began to succumb to the hostility of the crowd; I rolled my eyes, stomped my feet and matched my internal dialogue with the wrinkles in my nose and brow.

What kind of management would allow such a worker to stay employed? 

And why didn’t this cashier care about my need to purchase items at the pace that I desired? 

My thoughts drifted into deep waters of negative energy and lingered there for the majority of my time on line. But then, something happened. In drawing nearer towards the cashier, her face became visible and I could read it well: she was utterly exhausted. At the height of this realization, my internal dialogue began to change and I swam for warmer shallows. This was a woman who most likely had been there all day; she hadn’t slept much; she was a single mother of one, working at close to minimum wage, and she had about 100 more customers to go and five more hours before she’d have to step onto that lonely hour-long train ride home. Though the details of this fabricated story had changed with each passing minute, one aspect held true throughout: this was a person. It wasn’t until I stepped up to the counter that the cashier I had previously wanted dead, became the cashier I wanted to hug and kiss—and drive home to make dinner for. When at first I engaged her, she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Her actions were empty and heartless, the rote doings of mechanical tasks meant for no one but the economy.

“You must be exhausted. You look like you’re ready to run out of this place,” I said in a sympathetic tone. 

This simple acknowledgment changed her entire aura. Her eyelids lifted and color rushed into the cheeks of her smooth face.

“You have no idea. I’ve been up since 6,” she shot back.

As she rang me up, we engaged in short vignettes about working life, and about why I was buying this suit. I talked about my job interview, my plans for marriage and—despite having just met her—the bright future I saw for both of us after this financial transaction. We shared smiles, laughs, and the intimate connection afforded by the bond of human struggle. In a window of only five minutes, we had cast aside despair and threw a nod in the direction of hope. The cashier that had once been cold and lifeless, was now alive and bursting with energy. As she packed my purchases neatly between the handles of the store’s brand shopping bag, she suddenly blurted out,

“I’m giving you 10% off and a $5 gift card. Good luck on your interview.”

I smiled and thanked her before walking toward the exit, leaving the store with a bounty more fulfilling than new clothes could ever be.

Giving A Brake

I wasn’t satisfied when he returned with the diagnostic results of my car. The estimated cost of repair was a staggering $900 that didn’t exist in my bank account, but more importantly, just didn’t seem legitimate. Now faced with the decision to approve the extensive work, I opted, instead, to ride my hunch and take the $50 hit for the test results alone. His expression popped into a position of condescending surprise as he handed me the piece of paper, onto which the mechanic had scribbled his recommendations.

“Excuse me, I’d like the resulting numerical codes from the diagnostic,” I said.

“It says right there what’s wrong. He wrote it on there,” the clerk answered in an annoyed tone.

“Yes, I can see that. But, the $50 I’m paying is for the number codes from the results of that diagnostic test. And, because I’m not getting the work done here, I need those codes to be interpreted by a mechanic of my choosing later on.”

He stood dumbfounded. Nothing of what I said had gotten through. At this point, the manager appeared in the peripherals of my vision and ordered him to get the proper readout of the test results. The petite middle-aged woman directed me to the counter where she swiftly prepared my bill and receipt, apologizing for her employee who was now absent from the room. I read her name tag and addressed her by name.

“Thank you so much for your help Laura, I can tell you’re a really good manager. I want let you know how much I appreciate your effort just now.”

She flashed me a smile while reading my name from the debit card and addressed me in proper form, her tone taking on that of a concerned mother.

“No problem Mr. Rosario, if there’s anything else you need in the future, you ask for me directly.” She handed me a business card with her name and title on it.

I thanked her, giving her one last wave before exiting the shop.

Mr. Know It All

He couldn’t have been older than 21, but he spoke like he’d been in the business for years. On that Saturday, a friend of mine insisted that I tag along with him as he asked questions about wireless rates at a local Verizon store. That’s where we met Devon—a young black male with enough charisma and intelligence to sell you bag of lit dynamite. He was just that good—and nice as hell to boot.

My friend can be a bit meticulous, often coming off as down right obnoxious when it comes to collecting information. The guy is a complete consumer maven. At times, his attention to detail can rival that of the worst OCD patient you ever knew. But, that’s why I was surprised at Devon, the Verizon representative, who catered to every single ridiculous scenario my friend could dish out. At one point, Devon had whipped out a notepad and started calculating different pricing combinations by hand. In doing this he providing us with accurate projections of the overall costs and benefits of each plan. Even more astonishing was that this guy performed his service without once needing to look at a manual, phone a manager, or “be right back.” He did everything in real time, live, and with genuine honesty—pointing out the best price point for my friend’s needs.

After he finished explaining everything to us, I immediately thanked him and told him that I wanted to speak with his manager. About ten minutes later, an Indian man in his early 50’s emerged from the back room. Dressed in a full suit with his hair slicked back, he was everything you would expect from the ivory towers of business. He approached me with a group of other men at his sides and behind him. When he finally stepped in front of me, the line of men spread out like a phalanx, and Devon took position at his side. The meeting took up nearly the entirety of the main showroom floor.

“I wanted to let you know that Devon provided us with amazing service today. He knew every fact, price, plan, and answered all of our questions clearly. He’s awesome, so please reward him.”

The dark man standing in front of me flashed me an incredulous look as he shook my hand.

“Did he pay you to say that?” he said as he exhaled with a soft chuckle.

“No. Actually, I don’t even have Verizon. I use AT&T.”

Devon stood next to his manager in modest silence with both hands behind his back. He kept his shoulders back and his spine erect as he stared down toward the floor in a posture of confidence, listening attentively as I praised him in front of his boss and fellow colleagues. He was an excellent employee and he knew it. And now, everyone else did too.

The Bottom Line

The above stories are true accounts of my experiences, but anyone who’s ever worked a day in their life knows what it means to feel appreciated—or rather, unappreciated. As we’ve become the cogs in the machines of profit and economy, our humanity has slipped. We forget about the stories behind the products and services, behind the hands and faces that go unnoticed everyday. I’ve seen the simplest of comments turn an entire person’s day around, simply because I acknowledged them. In such times where an increasing emphasis is placed on efficiency and profit margins, people are absolutely burnt out and starved for attention. Many are so deprived that, at the simplest gesture of gratitude, they perk up and devour it with the fervor of ravenous wolves. They can’t help it; they’ve felt invisible for so long.

This isn’t about egos. People aren’t asking for undue credit and superfluous adulation, they just want reasonable acknowledgment—any acknowledgment. We all need some sign that others view us as human beings and that we are valued as such. Challenge yourself this week: Reach out and praise someone. Make a stranger feel noticed and appreciated. Because the small things can make the biggest difference.