When I was a kid, making my daily 15-minute walk to St. Henry’s Catholic School, I waved or said “Hello” (usually just waved, since I was painfully child at 7 or 8 years old) to everyone I passed. It didn’t matter if it was an adult, a kid my age or the old woman walking out to grab the morning paper. I greeted them in some shape or form.
Where I grew up, this wasn’t a “heavy lift,” since I probably saw only a dozen or so folks each day (accounting for both morning and afternoon trips).
It wasn’t anything I was taught; in fact, if anyone in my family would have known I was engaging others—strangers— at that age, they’d have likely discouraged such behavior, and rightfully so. After all, it was an odd cartoon horse named Patch the Pony who offered kids of our generation the following admonition: “Nay! Nay! From strangers stay away.”
It wasn’t anything I ever remember doing intentionally, it just happened. (Let’s be honest, how many things are second graders equipped to do intentionally?) No, I just did it. The kid with the faint, blond mustache, wearing the army jacket waiting for his ride to high school? “Hi.” The woman walking her baby in a stroller. (Casual wave “hello.”) The guy with the hardhat and lunch pail walking to his job at the electric company? “Hi.”
It’s possibly the simplest form of courtesy and friendliness one person can express to another. A simple wave, a nod or a “Hi.”
And I remember those early days fondly because I loved my walk to and from school. It was a rare feeling of independence and freedom at an age when everything seemed supervised me; 30 minutes (give or take) each day when I could be alone with my thoughts, with no one watching me.
In the morning, it offered 15 minutes to wake up and get moving, with no real time to stop or take a detour because I couldn’t be late for school.
Conversely, after school, I could decide whether to go straight home or stop at Woolworth’s to look at the newest 45s and vinyl albums (that’s music for you younger folks) or to check out some of the toys I might want to put on my Christmas list, or something I’d want to buy with the money I earned shoveling snow or mowing lawn.
(To answer your questions, yes, I was shoveling snow and mowing lawn at seven years old. Unfortunately, that early start in the “working world” didn’t propel me to billionaire status as a savvy entrepreneur as an adult, since instead of saving my money, I blew most of it on things like records, Hot Wheels cars and other such luxuries.)
On my walk home, I’d also spend some time at a place called “The New Plaster Hangup,” which by its name must have replaced “The Plaster Hangup,” or “The Old Plaster Hangup” or “Ye Olde Plaster Hangup.” Anyway, it was a place you could buy diecast white plaster shapes, items like fruits of various sizes, oversized letters you could use to spell out “love” or “peace,” Jesus at the Last Supper, etc. And when you purchased a piece, they’d let you paint it for free at a big table located in the middle of the store. At one point, we had no fewer than six of my masterpieces hanging throughout the house, pieces all self-funded through my snow shoveling/lawn mowing proceeds.
But I digress.
Back to saying hi and waving. That phenomenon faded as I got older, which I think comes with the territory of being an adolescent, when I became the high schooler with the faint, blond mustache and Army coat, waiting for my ride. I was still friendly, but by that time, I knew to save my hellos and waves for those people I knew and liked (or at least recognized).
By the time I hit college, it became virtually impossible to greet everyone even if I wanted to. There were simply too many people on campus. Isn’t it funny how as the crowd gets larger and we presumably have more opportunities to meet others, we often shrink into ourselves and disappear?
After college, I became a casual greeter of people, and in subsequent years, I started to completely wall myself off from others on trips to the grocery store, while walking the dog, on my daily runs, etc.
I’m not sure why that happened, but for some reason, something held me back. It wasn’t shyness anymore, or that I’d somehow become less friendly. I guess it was just a phase in my life when I wanted to keep to myself. Then, about five years ago, I had a little talk with myself. It went something like this:
My mind: “Why are you so insular all the time?”
Me: “I don’t know. Ever since I broke out of my shell in seventh grade, I haven’t had a problem being with people or speaking up.”
My mind: “You don’t have to remind me. Do you know how many thousands of times I’ve been sitting up hear screaming, ‘Shut up already! You don’t have to spend every word you know all at once!’”
Me: “I know, I know. I’m working on that. But the funny thing is, sometimes ‘shy guy’ comes back out, and I think it makes me look aloof, or like … like …
My mind: “An asshole?”
Me: “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but you’re on the right track.”
My mind: “So, what are you gonna do about it?”
This conversation went on for quite some time, with me rationalizing my behavior as my mind delivered blow after crushing blow of the truth …
… I wasn’t as friendly as I could be.
… I probably looked standoffish to others.
… didn’t I realize that the smallest acts of kindness and deference make a difference?
More often than not, my mind screws with me, like an older sibling who’s always giving its smaller, younger, more gullible brother a hard time just because he can. But this time, my mind wasn’t doing that. It was sending me a message, giving me an assignment; one that would turn into a gift.
That morning, as I went out for a walk, I decided to start greeting people again, just like I did on my morning walks to St. Henry’s so many years ago. But this time, instead of that little kid who could barely muster enough air to audibly utter “Hi” or summon enough strength to wave to another person, I would be that little adult who would smile at those I passed, saying “Hello” or “Good morning” to neighbors as they emerged from their homes to head out for work, and giving a big wave to strangers who walked or biked at a distance.
I even started waving at school buses as they passed; something that has become a ritual for me.
And I don’t take this activity lightly. I realize that some people don’t like grand physical gestures, or to even receive attention that a small “hello,” “good morning,” or a simple wave might bring. And for those people, I simply nod and smile.
Why do I tell you all this? It’s certainly not to prove to you that I’m not, as my mind once implied, an a**hole. And it’s not to get “credit” for something that so many people do every day. I guess it’s just to say that if we lose the simple things we can do to bring joy to the world, how are we going to find joy for ourselves? On the other hand, when we do these things—performing these littlest of gestures—won’t they eventually turn into bigger, better and more impactful ways to improve the world, or at least our corner of it?
For four years, I routinely passed a guy on my walks. Every time I saw him, I’d nod and smile, and he wouldn’t acknowledge. I committed to not giving up. And several weeks ago, my nod and smile were returned with a small wave. Yesterday, I was on a run, and I saw him. Before I could even wave or smile, he asked, “How’s it going?”
I don’t know, maybe you don’t think much of that story, but I saw a huge lesson, and a positive message in it, and maybe I knew it all those years ago, as a little kid walking to school.
And I wonder if any of those people from back then still remember that little guy who always said hi. I also wonder if those bus drivers ever talk about that “little squirely dude” who waves to them every morning.
I hope they do, not because I want to be seen or recognized, but rather, because I hope it’s a bright spot in their day and maybe gives them the energy to pass on a friendly gesture as well.
It’s sure made me more aware … and at least, not so much of an a**hole.
© 2024 David R. Haznaw