small kindnesses

The vendors in my neighborhood are awesome, and they blow me away with their small kindnesses and general friendliness. Maybe it's the time of year, but I'm feeling really sentimental and grateful.

There's the crew at Starbucks, who hail me as "Miss Ellie" and get started on my regular drink the moment they see me come in. They ask about my plans for the day, my dog, and even the men in my life, when I see them before and after shift, out on the sidewalk. One of them called me "Hopalong" this summer while my foot was mending, and filled my cup a bit less so it wouldn't spill when I wheeled back out on my scooter. Today, out of the blue, I was gifted a venti Macchiato by the barista who turned me on to the advantages of having my coffee prepared 'upside down'. "My Christmas gift to you," he said.

Next door is the sandwich shop I don't go in much, but whose proprietor, when he does see me, always inquires about Chaucer and invites me to bring him in (I don't, because I know not all diners are as enthusiastic about a drooling mastiff slobbering inches from their lunch). A few days ago as he was ringing me up he said, "I never got a chance to ask how you hurt yourself." I realized he must have noticed me hobbling/rolling to and fro in front of his restaurant for months, and I was touched that he made a point to ask, even though I'm basically a stranger - and an infrequent patron.

The woman who runs the closet-sized takeout place on my block asked after me, too, when I was finally well enough to limp by her again. She speaks hardly any English, and most of our conversations consist of me pointing and her smiling and nodding (and spooning steaming ladles of curry sauce onto a bed of chicken and rice). Nevertheless, she made her solicitousness clear with gestures toward my leg and a concerned facial expression; she wanted to know if I was all better. "Just about!" I replied, with a thumbs up.

Around the corner from her is a printing place I've never once set foot in, and barely glanced at in the almost three years I've lived by it. A couple of months ago, when I was at my absolute most frustrated and depressed, mystified as to why my foot wasn't healed yet, a man with bushy grey hair and a bushier grey mustache stepped outside to where I was struggling with a dog leash, a dog, a pair of crutches, a pile of poop in a tree well that I couldn't reach, and a really bad mood. He asked if he could help me, and the sympathetic look on his face obliterated me: tears started streaming down my face. I thanked him and explained that some days were better than others, and that while it was frustrating, I was surviving. He told me that he'd seen me on my crutches, then the scooter, then back on the crutches, and had felt awful watching me shuffle around for weeks and weeks with obvious trouble. "If you ever need anything," he continued, "I am happy to send one of the guys..." He nodded over his shoulder to the shop. "We can get you food or whatever errands you need, no problem."

Not long after that encounter, I was back to walking unassisted (if with a limp), and when he saw that, he rushed outside to greet me, all smiles and applause and "I am so happy to see this!"

A few days ago I popped into the dry cleaning place to see if they could reattach a dangling cardigan button. "Give me ten minutes," said the cashier who never has to look up my phone number to locate my stuff, and with whom I joke about the stains on my party clothes when I bring them in Monday morning. He matched the unusual thread color perfectly, and returned the cashmere sweater to me folded primly over a hanger and shrouded in plastic. "No, no charge," he smiled, when I asked how much I owed him.

Down the street there's a shoe repair shop where I occasionally take a pair of boots I've beaten the soles off of, or heels that need juuuuust a touch of stretching. The owner/operator chastises me for offroading through the dog park in such nice shoes, and refuses to clean them for me, after mending the heels. "Do it yourself," he says, exasperated, and hands me a ninety-nine cent pre-soaked polish sponge. "If we do it I have to charge you five bucks. It'll take you two minutes, seriously." Once I brought him a boot I'd ordered from Free People that had arrived with a stuck zipper. I was crazy about the boots, which were sold out, and didn't want to give them up. He looked at the zipper then turned the boot over slowly, examining the craftmanship. "How much did you pay for these?" he demanded. I didn't want to answer.

"Why? Are they poorly made or something?" He gave me look.

I sent them back the next day.


Instagram is flooded right now with images of holiday cards, which seem to be the metric for tallying social cache. This made me feel like a loser for a few days, since the only ones I've gotten are from my dentist, my real estate agent, and a few non-profits I've supported. I was actually feeling genuinely down about it until Friday, when in the space of an hour three different friends called to see what my holiday plans were and if I was free to get together, making my heart feel all full and fuzzy again, without even having to resort to John Williams.

Yesterday I had a brunch-then-shopping-then-cocktails-then more shopping day with my girlfriend Kerry, and we talked about the holiday card phenomenon. "Yeah, that's the big thing," I explained. "People make cute displays of them and then photograph them to post online or whatever. The more cards you have, the cooler you look." Kerry, who has no social media presence, was fascinated.

"Really?" she asked.

"Really," I said, taking a sip of my one p.m. Negroni.

"Huh," she said, and took a sip of hers.

She's not a big card sender, except to immediate family. And neither am I. I don't really have any family to send them to, and my friends? They know. Even if I haven't spoken to them in a while, they know. And I know. And they know I know. And we're okay with one another's laziness, which we recognize as such, and don't mistake for a lack of care.

But the people in my neighborhood who make my errands, my meals, my caffeine hits and dog walks that much more pleasant - they probably don't know the impressions they've made on me. I don't think greeting cards are quite appropriate (though in some cases tip$ and long-overdue Yelp reviews are), but this week I'm going to stop by, say happy holidays, and patronize their businesses in whatever ways I can, to try and return the small kindnesses they've shown me this year.