For the past hour or so, a woman I’ve never met has been calling me “honey.”
You decide what you want, honey?
Honey, would you like more coffee?
You stay as long as you need to, honey.
Here I am on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Alliance, Ohio, feeling special in a corner booth at the Sugar Shak Cafe after owner Jeanine Reed bestows upon me the same term of affection she uses for every single person she lays eyes on.
The oddest thing: This doesn’t bother me in the least. In fact, having a middle-aged woman act as if she’s known me forever feels a lot like home, when every mom in the neighborhood used to smile — and yell at me, too — as if I were one of her own.
Maybe I’m finally growing up. Maybe I’m mellowing. Or maybe I’m just so sick of the digitalcrazed trend of ignoring people right in front of us that I’m just grateful for the reminder that we all have to take a turn weeding the high road.
Reed’s diner is like a lot of small-town restaurants across America. Lace curtains shade the windows, and coffee mugs are printed with advertising from local businesses. Each customer is greeted with a sign by the door: “PLEASE CLEAN THE MUD OFF YOUR SHOES OUTSIDE.” We all do, earning the “THANK YOU” printed at the bottom.
I pulled off the road to order a quick lunch and write a response to David Carr’s recent New York Times piece about etiquette in the digital age.
As he wrote, it’s still rude if a stranger looks over your shoulder to see whether someone more interesting is on the horizon.
“If, however,” he continued, “she is not looking over your shoulder, but into a smartphone in her hand, she is not only well within modern social norms, but is also a wired, well-put-together person.”
The digital revolution, Carr lamented, “has made it fashionable to be rude.”
On Tuesday, I was the only stranger in the Sugar Shak Cafe, as Reed greeted everyone else by name. She was up on everybody’s life, too.
“How’s that new dog of yours?” she asked one of the guys at the counter.
“You want me to wrap a sandwich separate, like I usually do?” she asked an elderly man.
“Name’s Willy,” she told me later. “He comes here twice a day.”
Nearly all of Reed’s lunchtime patrons are men from nearby shops and factories. It was clear by the hum of familiar banter that they knew one another.
For the entire time I was there — about an hour and a half — I was the only one who pulled out a digital tablet, computer or smartphone.
When one man’s cellphone rang, he stepped outside to take the call. I asked Reed whether that was typical.
“We don’t see a lot of cellphones or computers in here,” she said. “It’s not considered polite, you know. People come here to eat and to visit.”
Once in a while, a new customer will take a seat and pull out a cellphone as Reed approaches the table.
“I never yell at them,” she said. “I just tell them I’ll come back when they’re ready to talk to me and give me their order.”
After she told me that story, I immediately felt guilty for the laptop on my table.
“Don’t you worry,” she said after I asked whether she’d like me to move to a smaller table to free up the booth. “If people want more space, they can move to the front room, honey.”
There was a time when I would have bristled at such familiarity, even from a woman. I was all about the respect, earned and otherwise, that I thought should be flowing my way.
My mother saw this change in my personality as one of the only downsides to my being the first in my family to go to college.
“Kindness is kindness,” she’d say with a rare, withering look. “And don’t you ever forget who gets to sit and who has to stand while you’re getting offended.”
Some lessons don’t take hold right away, but my mother’s notions of how to treat people burrowed into me like the roots of a weeping willow. There’s no digging ‘em out now.
And women like Jeanine Reed remind me that kindness never goes out of style. ©2011 Creators