And furthermore…

Some people just stand out from the crowd

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

He was sitting at a large, round table full of friends and family at a restaurant in New Hampshire. The man’s smile filled the room. His voice was low but easily audible, an accent adding charm and allure. Somehow he seemed to know just the right pitch to make himself heard across the whole bistro, projecting his conversation with the studied skill of an actor.

Self-assured and charismatic even in the smallest comments and gestures, he bubbled and shone; attracting others to him like a mountain spring attracts thirsty creatures. People passing by on the way to the coat check or the rest room found pretexts to pause by his table and engage him in small talk. The waiter took longer than necessary standing beside him, laughing and sharing anecdotes with him and his party.

He was the center of attention in the entire dining room, and it seemed like a role he was comfortable with, one he was used to playing. He made everyone smile. A European, for sure, he knew how to hold court, and he was enjoying every moment of it.

At one point the words “Rhode Island School of Design” resonated across the distance between his table and the one where I was sitting. Then he mentioned the Providence Art Club to those at his table, and he talked about the city.

It was like an invitation to approach him. At least I took it that way. I couldn’t believe how easily I stood up and crossed the intervening space. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help hearing you mention RISD,” I began.

In an instant I was talking to him, sharing that I lived in Rhode Island and knew College Hill well and had dined at the Art Club a number of times. Then we began that game of trying to close the six degrees of separation. It went on for a minute or two and once we even thought we had found a common acquaintance, but ultimately we weren’t sure of it. I was pretty certain that he humored me to save me from embarrassment. All the time we spoke he was convivial, smiling, laughing, and engaging.

I asked him where he was from, and he said New York, and then he realized I meant his country of origin. He said it was Holland, the Netherlands. I was tempted to tell him about my friend Cor Sandifort, a gentle artist from Maastricht who had endured the Nazi occupation during World War II, but there was no easy way to segue there.

So, I told him how great a pleasure it was to meet him, and then I retreated to where my companion sat and wondered about my audacity. It isn’t my custom to interrupt total strangers while they are partaking of a meal.

I probably should have felt chagrin, but I didn’t; I only felt a kind of warmth, and an appreciation for having made contact with this unusual human being. Why? I asked myself. Why was I so sanguine when normally I would have been feeling embarrassed?

I thought for awhile about it, and it came to me. This jovial, welcoming beacon of a man who drew others to him like some kind of instant guru was not seeking adulation or attention. He was dispensing good will and offering affirmation. It was where he drew his energy from. It was his purpose.

Remembering him made me remember others like him. Sometimes they show up in unlikely places such as, for example, on the valet parking team at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Picture yourself on a miserable weather day at the strange parking lot of the outstanding venerable institution (founded 1824). The lot is an oddly shaped irregular island of asphalt surrounded by city streets and bordered by Storrow Drive. Just getting off the Expressway and into the dab of space is a challenge that can turn your knuckles white. Once parked, you have to climb up a steep, open metal stairway and cross over the maze of roads on an open pedestrian bridge and descend another metal stairway to get to the place everyone simply calls Mass Eye. The experience can rattle you.

With all this on your mind you somehow mess with the car’s headlight setup. The model you are driving has an arrangement that ensures the lights will stay on until you open the driver side door. You inadvertently change it so the lights stay on, period. Then you cross over the infernal footbridge bordered by rushing traffic for an afternoon-long wait while your companion has some miraculous work done on her eyes.

When at last you return to the car in a swirl of freezing sleet, anxious to head south to Smithfield, imagine the sinking feeling that sweeps over you as you realize the battery is dead. A call to AAA only adds to the helplessness that engulfs you. The city is in gridlock from rush hour and the weather coinciding. It will be, at minimum, a four hour wait. There are blankets in the trunk for just such an occasion, and we decide to wrap up and tough it out. There isn’t even the option of listening to the radio.

After an hour the blankets no longer provide much warmth. It is dark and the air is even colder than it was at first. So, we grit our teeth and re-cross the metal foot-bridges. At least the lobby of the Eye and Ear Infirmary is warm and dry and you can get coffee from a vendor there.

Worried that since we had already checked out and paid for parking and that your exit card only works for 15 minutes after paying, I approach the control desk and tell them our plight.

“Oh, don’t wait for AAA,” the clerk said. “We can help you.”

In seconds a diminutive valet staffer named Goshon appeared with a battery-charging device almost as big as he was. He couldn’t stop smiling in reassurance and promising to have us on our way in minutes. Back we went over the steel bridges with Goshon chattering animatedly all the way, telling us not to worry and offering his philosophy about staying in the moment and how to achieve bliss. True to his word he got the engine going in 30 seconds. Relief doesn’t begin to describe the emotion that we felt.

We were happy to tip our rescuer well. He had given us such comfort and made us smile when circumstance had made us very grim. He wasn’t just dispensing electric power; he was recharging his customer’s faith in humanity.

One more example. This one just happened, and it also involves the same car and another dead battery for the same reason, the tricky headlight setting.

Parked at Point Judith Lighthouse on a recent weekend to read, watch the surf, and contemplate the bay and its boat traffic, we fell asleep. The Sunday paper settled into a tent-like shape over my face, and I slept while I was delightfully unaware. A chunk of time passed, and when I awoke and we got ready to leave, lo and behold, the battery wouldn’t even whimper.

This time, the couple in the SUV parked beside us surprised us. As I futilely tried cranking the engine, the woman in the vehicle got out, came over and knocked on our window.

“You won’t believe this,” she said as I opened the door and stepped out. “The same thing just happened to us. We already called AAA. You can get them to help you at the same time.” Like Goshon and the man in the restaurant, she bubbled and exuded solicitousness and good will.

In half an hour the truck arrived. The driver was a clone of Goshon. He smiled and chuckled and said not to fret. In minutes he had both cars running. He advised us on how to keep the engine going, dispensed more cheer, and soon had everyone on their way.

When surly clerks and short tempered wait staff, road ragers, remote dentists, and indifferent technicians have us thinking dark thoughts and feeling despair about the state of society and the callousness of fellow beings, it might be good to summon memories of people like these.

There are still those among us who care what effect they have on others and seem to get their affirmation by giving theirs to those they encounter.