Thursday, September 29, 2011

You and Me Both

Very early in my New York waitressing years, I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the Broadway line to pick me up from the Fulton Street stop. I had just worked a Wall Street lunch shift, and I had made maybe $25. I was a year out of college and not particularly happy.

Although it wasn’t rush hour, I was waiting for the train at the very back end of the platform – all the more likely therefore to get a seat when the Local arrived.

But that location also was desolate, and because this was the early ‘80’s, that desolate status presented a risk.

A guy in dark glasses approached me, and he approached me close.

His face probably less than 12 inches from my own, he said (quietly), “When that train comes, I’m going to push you in the tracks.”

I didn’t take a moment, but simply responded. And I responded with absolute honesty: “Oh please don’t do that,” I said (also quietly and with no inflection). “I’ve had a very bad day.”

He smiled, touched me on the shoulder, and said, with an empathy that felt genuine, “You take care, now.”

And then he walked away.

… About eight years ago, an L.A. friend of mine, who is a communications professor and was teaching an online course, needed some teaching assistants. I was among the four she recruited. We T.A.’s didn’t have to read the material (unless we wanted to). We just had to have enough smarts to “get it,” and we needed to be able to grade papers.

It was a fascinating project, and from the students’ references to key passages from books on their syllabus, I realized that I had – intuitively – already been on top of some things in the communications department. Specifically: the results you want won’t come from blaming another party. They’ll come from connecting with that party.

As I reviewed the students’ papers, I remembered the guy on the subway platform. I also remembered two other moments from my early adulthood in New York.

Moment One: As per my being one of the many on-call waitresses of Manhattan’s premiere burger-slinging chain, I was working a cocktail shift in midtown. I remember running around, keeping track of my tables and their orders as best I could. I’d just collected on a check from two people who had had a few drinks. Next to their table, three younger people were thirty minutes or so into their happy hour. I brought the young group another round, and then I turned to bus the table that the couple had just abandoned.

I immediately noticed there was no money on the table. I had seen the tip a few moments ago, but now, it was gone.

I had little doubt that the younger trio, sitting within arm’s length of the abandoned table, had stolen the dollar-fifty. I also knew that confronting them with my suspicion wouldn’t pay. And so I began an improvisation.

“Damnit,” I said, as I picked up the dirty glasses of the departed couple.

“Damnit!” I said again, turning to look at the trio.

“You know,” I confided to them in a crestfallen tone. “I barely make ends meet. And the two people sitting here just left without tipping me! I don’t even know what to say. It’s just not fair.”

I shook my head as I wiped the top of the abandoned table. Then, I walked away slowly, dirty glasses in tow.

A few minutes later, I returned to the area of intrigue, where the trio’s energy was particularly happy.

“We found your tip!” they said, their enthusiastic kindness undoubtedly driven by guilt. “It was under the napkin container!”

“It was?” I said, playing along. “Oh wow, that’s such a relief. Thank you so much.”

I scooped up the money and walked away, allowing all of us to feel good about ourselves.

Moment Two: Around the same time, my roommate – who had better resources than I – had hired a team of guys to refloor the living room of our two-bedroom apartment. So, there they were during the day – the team of unknown guys. Working on our apartment while my roommate and I were off at our jobs.

I generally got home from my waitressing shift at about 4:00 in the afternoon, and as was my routine back then, changing my clothes was immediately followed by opening the top drawer of my dresser. That’s where I kept my pot.

But on one particular afternoon, there was no little baggie in the drawer.

And I knew.

I knew the guys who were dealing with the living room floor had found my stash and had taken it.

I also knew that accusing them would not result in anything helpful to me.

Within a few seconds of intuitive reasoning, I began my act.

“Damnit,” I said from my bedroom, loud enough for them to hear.

“Damnit,” I said again. “I’m such a ditz! Why do I always misplace my pot?

“I’m so pissed right now,” I added, even more loudly (and for effect). “All I want is a joint and I can’t find my pot! … I’m just such a loser.”

I then emerged from my bedroom, took the short walk down the hallway, and entered the living room.

“Guys?” I said, a slight whine in my voice, “Have any of you seen a bag of pot?”

They shrugged their shoulders as I stomped back to my bedroom, continuing to berate my “loser self.”

Just a minute or two later, a voice came from the living room.


“Yes?” I responded, curiously working my way down the hall.

“We found your pot.”

“Really?” I said, entering the living room.

“Yes,” the spokesman replied, “It was tucked behind these books in the bookshelf.”

I shook my head as if to acknowledge my own disoriented filing system. “So glad you found it,” I said, as he handed me the baggie. “I’m such a ditz!”


I’m a ditz.

I’m a ditz that knows she’s not the only one on the planet who’s having a bad day...

You and me both, kiddo.

You and me both.


Cynthia said...

They say talking not yelling gets you want you want, great job. :-)

Martha Mawson said...

Great post and great psychology...

Anonymous said...

Wise words Katie. I used to use such psychology on my children, especially on my eldest son who went through a phase of taking what was not his from the cupboard or my purse when small. I'd play the game just as you did and nine times out of ten he'd come up with the goods and I'd pretend to be really pleased. I think he knew I knew but the game gave him a way out and he took it. He grew out of this stage without any problems eventually. By the way, this post was worth waiting the extra day for :-)

Michael Offutt said...

I would never have handled that with such cool cleverness. I confront people and tell them my suspicions. I really don't care what they think. I'll probably get shanked some day by someone that's angry with me and as I lie there in a pool of blood, I'll remember your post.

Sarah Pearson said...

You definitely catch more flies with honey than vinegar :-)

And yet again, one of Michael's comments has made me laugh.

BECKY said...

I would've been scared out of my mind if a guy like that approached me and said such chilling words.....Unbelievably brave and smart of you!

Ed Pilolla said...

this is a rare quality you have. you are manipulative, and not in a bad way:) i would certainly like to be so manipulative:)
you didn't react with fear, and that includes anger. you seemed to have focused so quickly on what you needed to do in each situation to get what you wanted. you were less mad at the injustice of people stealing from you than you just wanted what was yours back.

Green Monkey said...

Katie !!! you're good....... ! Ed is right, it is a rare quality and SOOOO not in a bad way. bravo! great read :)

Cheryl said...

There's a forcefulness to your personality that shines here.

Damyanti said...

Amazing. I need to remember this the next time I am about to enter a spell of righteous yelling.

Join me at the Rule of Three Writers' Blogfest!

Anonymous said...

I've think you've got your Survivor instinct working well for you. Isn't that the basic thrust of this? A lesson for me, who avoids and adapts. :) Sarah xx

Jayne Martin said...

Just typed out a long comment and it seems to have vanished. This is a great wake-up call post, Katie. Wish I'd read it a week ago before I stuck my foot in my mouth with someone.

Green Monkey said...

p.s. I've pimped you out. My plan was to make it a random act of admiration, but I failed.

cj Schlottman said...

Katie, Ed nailed it. You think on your feet better than anyone I know, and you have a gift with which few are blessed: diplomatic manipulation. I am so proud of you.