It was a Sunday afternoon. After church I grabbed a quick bite with a buddy of mine, then headed north up the interstate. An old friend from Hampton was playing music at an unnamed local public establishment. He had invited me to come listen and catch up on life. He played in Pine Mountain the day before, but I got busy and crossed up on the time, so I missed him.
When I turned off the county road onto the gravel drive, I could see a pavilion up on the hill. A few vehicles were parked around back but I couldn’t tell if there was any designated parking area. Two guys playing guitar underneath the shade. I figured I was in the right place. It was just a matter of choice that I pulled off the gravel onto the grass to park my truck in front of the pavilion. Seemed logical to me.
When I stepped out of the truck, I took off my good Sunday shirt and tossed it in the front seat. I pulled my T-shirt lose from the waist. If I was gonna sit for a spell, I wanted to be comfortable. It was hot.
I never saw him coming. Still standing inside the open door of my truck with my back to the pavilion, I heard a voice behind me.
“Who are you?”
The tone was snarky. There was a bite to his words. I turned to see a man, early forties I assumed, standing about four feet behind me with his hands on his hips. His eyes were squinty, and he was staring me down.
I took a long pause. I mean a looong pause.
I may not always be the most hospitable guy on the planet, but I know good manners when I see them. And this was not the most mannerly start to a conversation I’ve ever heard from a complete stranger. I was making solid eye contact, but I doubt he could tell because of my sunglasses. In a matter of only a few seconds, I considered my options. Thinking how to reply to Mr. Snarky.
“I’m Paul. Who are you?” I meant it be more polite than it probably sounded.
He stepped a little closer. “I’m the owner of this place and you can’t be parking on the grass. We’ve got plenty of parking around back. We don’t let people just come in here and park on the grass anywhere they feel like it.”
First of all, I know grass. Bermuda turf. Myers Zoysia. Centipede. I’ve been around some very nice lawns. I’m repeating myself, but I look down around my feet, and this excuse for grass is not that. A little wild clover. Some naked dirt. Maybe a few tufts of grass blades poking up through the weeds.
Then he asked, I’m not kidding, “What are you doing here?”
Now, understand, this is a public event which he, the owner, publicized. There are signs everywhere promoting the day. Signs inviting people like me to come and visit and listen to live music. One might think that I’m here because of that.
I stayed cool. “I’m here to listen to a friend of mine play music.”
“Is that okay?” I asked. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
He changed his bulldog stance. “Yeah, that’s fine. Glad you came, but you can’t be parking on the grass. You need to move your truck around back.”
I don’t know if you’re like me, but when something like that is over, I start thinking about all the ways I could have responded. Clever comebacks. Snark for Snark. I keep playing it over and over in my mind. Crafting the perfect response to any rude moment is so satisfying. I’m just never quick enough on my feet to pull it off.
Let me play it back for you. “Who are YOU?”
Snarky reply #1. I’m the manners police. What did you do with the ones your mama taught you?
Snarky reply #2. Wow! Not exactly the warm welcome I was expecting from a perfect stranger.
Snarky reply #3. Hmm. Let me see. Evidently you don’t know who I am, or else you wouldn’t be asking. I’m sure I don’t know who you are. You go first.
Snarky reply #4. Mister. I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt and let you start this conversation over again.
That last one kept playing in my head in the voice of John Wayne.
I moved my truck. Took a seat with the four other people who had come out for this grand event. Ordered a little something from the menu, just to be nice. Listened to some good music. Chatted with my friend when they took a break. It was a good afternoon.
I’m glad I didn’t follow through with my imaginary replies. No point would have been served except to make me feel superior for a moment and then miserable for the rest of the day. Kill them with kindness, right? I’ve heard that all my life. It’s sometimes a tough medicine to swallow, but it’s always the right approach.
Good manners go a long way. I don’t think it’s just a southern courtesy. It’s a human kindness. I try to think about that when I’m around people. Who knows what kind of day some Joe has been having? Maybe it’s been a rough week. A kind greeting, a thoughtful gesture, even a gentle word is the best way.
I was leaving the grocery store today after work. Three bags in one hand. Pushing the door open with the other. I caught a glimpse of someone coming right behind me, so I stepped aside and held the door.
“Well, thank you, young man.” I turned to see if the guy was blind.
He went on. “Good to see somebody still believes in common courtesy. Most of the time I get the door slammed right in my face.”
I joined in. “Well, that’s a shame. It doesn’t take much to hold a door.”
“No sir,” he said, “but you’d be surprised at how seldom people take the time to do it.”
“I’d like to think maybe it’s the rule rather than the exception.” I was trying to move on. “You have a nice day, sir.”
This guy is a total stranger to me. “Before you go,” he said, “I want you to know I appreciate it. You may not think it’s much, but it’s a big deal to me.”
I’m nodding in agreement. “You’re welcome. You take care, now.”
I can’t help but compare that simple 60 second exchange to the one on Sunday afternoon.
I have to give the owner credit. He eventually came by my table and asked me how I enjoyed my order. He apologized for getting off on the wrong foot. “No hard feelings,” he said.
“Well, it was a little rough at the start,” I said, “but no hard feelings.” I can deal with that.
Then he added, “I just can’t let people park on the grass. I’m sure you understand.”
I sure do.