A few minutes ago, I saw a very old Chinese guy in the bathroom at work. He was about 5 feet tall, wore a crisp white business shirt, and had his black pants hiked up almost to his armpits. I’ve seen him around the building several times. He never makes eye contact, never pastes a smile on his bald head, but he always seems to have a purpose or direction. Even when he’s in the bathroom. Today, he was washing three coffee cups with zenlike attention: all at once, in all three bathroom sinks.
I stood there politely waiting for him to finish. he never looked up from his task as he washed, dumped grounds, then carefully dried each cup with paper towels. I assumed it wouldn’t be polite to push him out of the way and claim a sink for myself. Hell – he’s probably a kung fu master. I’ve seen it in the movies–one should never rile up an old short Asian guy.
At length, (2 minutes of length, to be more precise), he gathered his collection cups and lids, cradled them like a baby, never once looked up, and wandered out of the bathroom.
People are so peculiar. I love people watching. I wonder of their motives. I wonder what I can learn from them.
The droopy woman in the cafeteria who never smiles; never looks up from her soup; never talks to anyone outside her bubble. I wonder if she was abused as a girl.
The woman with the shorn head, with a tee shirt and matching Crocs for every day of the week. I wonder if she was a cancer victim, or just used as a tool by a malevolent fashion God.
The young mentally-challenged woman who smiles at everyone in our building of 1,500, and greets us each personally, with our name and a wave. She wears bright yellow to match her uplifting mood, is slightly hunched, walks with a limp. She reminds me of a cousin I haven’t seen in a few decades.
The middle-aged balding man with a ponytail that he could tuck into his bra-strap (if he were inclined to wear womens’ undergarments). He reads every lunchtime; usually a novel–sometimes the Wall Street Journal. I never talk to him, but I know him intimately, because I peek at the title of each book he’s read for the last 2 years.
The huge plaid-shirted scientist with a riotous laugh a beard that would amaze an Orthodox priest. He talks about stratigraphy. I don’t know what that is.
The badger-shaped young man from Goodwill who empties my trash every day. We’ve had a short conversation almost every day for the last 3 years. He bursts into sentences, throws on the verbal brakes, repeats words, and interrupts syllables with sounds like “AM-AM-AM-AM!” He always has a smile, and wears a truss. I have no idea what he’s saying. Neither does anyone else. Everyone likes him.
The secretary with a sharp tongue that would shame a longshoreman, a constant string of wisecracks, and a laundry list of people and things she hates at work. She’ll tell you what she thinks, and if you don’t like it, too bad. She collects skulls and animal bones. She has a thick shell to protect her from hurt. Her philosophy has become attack before you can be attacked. I like her and wish she hadn’t seen so much pain in her life. We get along well.
Each workplace breathes personality. Mine certainly does. Flannery O’Connor famously said “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention. ” I am not brave enough to stare. I am probably as odd as one of O’Connor’s “grotesques,” as some critics called her characters. But I enjoy watching patterns and seeing new things. I wonder how life and grace intersect, and how the people I see every day can make me a better person. I know they do. I like them all; though I could have done without the 2 minute wait while all the coffee cups are cleaned.