I thought of this as I stepped out of the shower at 11:18 a.m. one morning and suddenly remembered I was supposed to be at a “Meet the Local Legislators” PTA luncheon in town at 11:30.
I wanted to go, and didn’t want to go.
Despite good intentions, my morning had been terribly unproductive. My house was screaming for attention. The laundry begged to be put away after several days of kids streaking to the laundry room looking for clean underwear. As I attempted to dry myself off with the damp hand towel my husband and I had been sharing for two days, I had a decision to make. To be involved, or not to be involved?
I decided to make a run for it.
I’m a concerned citizen and parent. I want to know what’s going on and put my two bits in about what’s going on, once I find out what’s going on. So I pulled a pair of slacks over my wet legs, accessorized with a conservative string of pearls and ran out the door.
The bad thing about being late for lunch is that all the croutons are gone. The chicken salad sandwich was tasty, but a tad runny for an event where you want to ask important political questions without juice running down your face. Dessert was a slice of dry chocolate cake. Rationing the stingy dollop of whipped topping to accommodate every last bite proved tricky. I was suspicious that the menu choice was a ploy by the politicians to leave our faces embarrassingly slathered and our throats too full of dry cake to offer input.
Just as I was gagging down my last cocoa bite, the most prominent of the representatives stood to speak. His voice booming from the speakers rang familiar from my past and triggered a flashback – I’m sitting at a typewriter in a law office as this very same voice was expressing loud disdain for my use of his professional equipment for personal reasons and disgust for my general existence on the planet.
I was young, newly married and living in the basement apartment of this important man’s law office doing nightly custodial and security work in exchange for a meager wage and cheap rent while my husband and I were putting ourselves through college. I had been given permission by his generous and sympathetic secretary to use the main office equipment after hours for schoolwork so long as I used my own paper, turned everything off when finished and paid for any copies I made. Apparently he hadn’t received the memo.
I was stunned. Here was probably the most reputable lawyer in town, a seasoned politician and affluent community and state figure and he made it very clear that in his sea of influence I was the equivalent of an algae eater. I understand his initial concern. He came into his office late at night to work and was surprised by my unexpected presence. Even politicians are human, I think, and the element of surprise can knock even the most poised of public breeding off balance. But, what offended me was that his reprimand contained several degrading references alluding to his opinion of my station in life compared to his.
Of all his harsh words, I found the first thing he said to me the most insulting, “Who are you anyway?”
We had met hundreds of time. He was, after all, my landlord, not to mention my employer for four years. I lived in his building and cleaned up after him. I emptied his garbage can and washed the crusty lasagna out the Tupperware dish leftover from his lunch. I cleaned the toilet he used and was privy to evidence that he wasn’t on target on every current issue.
I realized that he dined on the upper crust of society and I was a mere crumb, but as a representative of the people he should know better than to slap the hand that dusts his desk. Besides being his employee and tenant, he had failed to recognize me as something else to him – a voter. Though perhaps a child bride by the world’s standards, I was well over 18 and could cast a ballot. He would never get mine again.
When I found my voice I stood up and reintroduced myself. I explained the situation and apologized for the misunderstanding.
I could tell he was embarrassed that he hadn’t recognized me, but he didn’t apologize. All he said was “Oh,” and then as he huffed away he said, “Make sure you clean up when you’re done.”
I always did. That’s what he paid me for.
I eventually worked my way out of his basement. I graduated from college cum laude, worked in the professional community, started my own business and a family and got involved in the PTA to help make a difference, which led to this luncheon and another encounter.
He shook my hand, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“And you . . . again.”
He flashed a campaign smile and moved past me to continue working the room.
I know his policies well. I’ve followed them over the years and acknowledge he has done much good. And though I’ve moved up in the world, I hardly have any more influence or importance in his universe than I did when I lived in his basement. (In fact my current line of work is still mostly custodial.) But my vote and my opinion of him will forever be tainted by a dark night in his office, out of the limelight, away from the podium when he encountered a private citizen working hard to make her way in the world and made her feel less than worthy of his notice or courtesy.
Moral of the story: Treat all creatures with kindness. You never know what might be growing in your basement.