Beauty in Unexpected Places

image

One of our maintenance staff stopped me in the hall today. I usually pass by them, saying hello and sometimes stopping to chat with one of the older ladies I’m friends with, Evelyn. It’s easy to learn their names because they’re embroidered on their blue janitorial shirts… I kind of have an unfair advantage and didn’t realize they might not all know my name, although we see each other everyday after 4:30pm. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise when he asked, a bit hesitantly: “What’s your name, miss? … If I may ask?” I told him, and glanced at his jacket as I asked his. I admit I didn’t really know this man’s name, although I’d heard it before – I usually recognized him as the man with one lame arm, that I sometimes feel pity for when I see him dutifully sweeping some corner under our five-floor spiral staircase, or pushing that massive waxing machine with his one good arm – and he always does it so cheerfully. “Woodrow. “Wood or Woody,” he confirmed. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up – just a little, not too much. He continued, “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I appreciate that you’re always smilin’ and that you’re always kind,” he said thoughtfully, then paused, “that’ll take you far in life.” I stood directly opposite him in the hall by the water fountain, he holding a broom in his good hand, me with my leg brace and carrying my black laptop bag. I put my back against the call board in case anyone needed to pass by. “Thanks,” I muttered, then something else about being fortunate to still be doing what I love… I really wasn’t been feeling it today. Honestly, I thought to myself, I don’t know how I’m going to get a job next year. I’m tired of barely being able to pay my bills and if I don’t stop injuring the only instrument I have that my entire vocation depends on, I don’t know what I’ll do… It’s the first time in 28 years I haven’t had some naive, ambitious answer for the ugly reality of ‘how are you going to be able to sustain living and dancing’?
“How much longer do you have?” Woody asked. “This is my last year in the MFA program,” I said, relaxing a bit and setting down my bag. I liked this old man. I could see his big, gold tooth through his smile clearly for the first time, perhaps because I stopped for long enough and actually have him my full gaze, there in the dingy light. He seemed as excited for me as I should have been as he asked about my future. Again I had no definite answer, but told him about how I’ll probably teach in a university like this one day because that’s the most stable job I can expect to get with my degree. I wondered what dreams this old man had at one time. Does he still have dreams? Ambitions? What struggles has he fought to keep going through life with his deformity? “Well, I know you have a bright future ahead,” he told me. “Soon you’ll be up there looking down on the rest,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of our state-of-the-art theatre one floor above us. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said with a chuckle. He sighed and motioned it was time for him to go. “Well, keep that smile. I know I-we really appreciate it,” he said, motioning to mean the rest of the maintenance staff. “Your attitude, your kindness – they’ll get you far. I know you have a bright future ahead. I can see it!” His eyes lit up as he said it; he picked up his broom and waved goodbye as he headed off. I was glad too, as I picked up my bag, because I had started to tear up and I knew it was beginning to show. “Thanks Woodrow, I appreciate it!” I said as I picked up my bag and turned the corner to walk as fast as my bum leg would allow As soon as I stepped into the sun outside I burst into tears. My heart was so heavy, and touched – yet I didn’t quite understand what had happened back there. I sobbed as I walked toward the red brick parking garage in the humid Florida sun.
Kindness hasn’t gotten me far in this cut-throat, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps life, I thought to myself, and it certainly has done nothing for my professional career. In fact I often feel overlooked and under-appreciated. Why do I keep trying to do this? I ask myself. The psychological income I receive certainly doesn’t pay my health insurance and surgery and physical therapy costs… I always thank choice and fortune for shining down on me. This man who offered me rare appreciation… Why not do it for him? For the millions of other people who don’t have the choice to pursue their art? I why am I still here dancing if it isn’t to make a shared human experience and to illuminate Beauty to color this harsh world… Perhaps the old man has a point.