I’m not a world traveler (yet) but I still take pride in the eclectic experiences I’ve had as an adult. I’ve lived on both coasts and several places in between, been out of the country, eaten foods most people haven’t heard of and read everything I can get my hands on to learn about people and places that I can’t experience in person. But, it hasn’t always been that way. I grew up in a very small town. We had one traffic light and less than 1,300 people lived within the actual city limits. We had a grocery store, video rental store, school etc. The benefit was knowing everyone. It was a safe, happy place to live. The down side was that, if you wanted to do anything more exotic than grabbing lunch at one of our family owned restaurants, you had to drive an hour to get to a bigger city. Suffice to say, growing up and into my early adult years, I wasn’t very worldly.
In 1994, a year after I graduated high school, I worked as a waitress at a tiny restaurant in a neighboring town (one even smaller and more secluded than my own). Have you ever watched a tv show or movie where tourists stop in at a country diner? The cook is covered in grease and there’s always one old waitress named Flo or Louise who smells like Lucky Strike, but gives you a free piece of pie that the widow down the street made that morning. That’s where I worked. It was called Skeeter’s and our main clientele were truck drivers and tourists passing through on their way to South Florida.
It was a horrible job, there’s no denying that. But, the one aspect that I actually enjoyed was meeting all kinds of Northern snowbirds. It was typically slow and customers had been on the road for several hours, so everyone was more than happy to chit chat and talk about their travels. I met some very interesting people and loved to learn from them. Unfortunately, not everyone was kind.
One morning two women came into the diner, traveling from the North somewhere (I don’t remember exactly where). They were loud and a little brusque, but I was use to dealing with truck drivers so it didn’t bother me at first. When I approached to take their order, one woman cut me off in the middle of my “Good Morning, Ladies” with a curt “I need iced coffee.” Now, I’m still a little 18 year old Southern belle at this point and in my town if your coffee was cold it was time to throw it out, so I faltered. “We….we don’t have iced coffee.” Both women looked at each other and laughed.
“Then make some,” one said, “We’re in a hurry.”
At this point I was already a little embarrassed by their laughter, but I wasn’t about to let them know. So I nodded, smiled and went to the kitchen. I had no idea what I was doing. I poured coffee into a cup of ice and carried it back out to her with a pitcher of cream and packets of sugar. The laughter that resulted when I set it on the table absolutely mortified me. I think one of them was even crying, she was laughing so hard.
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying so hard to keep smiling, “Did I forget something?”
“Ummm …yeah,” one said, winking at the other, “How do you get iced coffee wrong? How is that even possible?” I just stayed silent. The second woman rolled her eyes at me, “This is hilarious. She doesn’t even know how.”
The first woman pushed all of the items back to me at the edge of the table and leaned in to say, “Just bring me a cup of coffee and a glass of ice. Do you think you can manage that?” As I returned to the kitchen I heard one of them say, “What a piece of **** town. I hate rednecks.” Cue the laughter.
I felt two inches tall. So I didn’t know how to make iced coffee. So what? I was still a child really, fresh out of high school and hadn’t been anywhere outside my home town – much less learned the art of coffee making. But, that didn’t mean I wasn’t intelligent or capable. How differently would that situation have gone if she, instead, replied, “Would you please bring me a hot decaf, a glass of ice and some cream and sugar. I’ll show you a delicious way to drink your coffee.” But she chose to belittle someone over a harmless lack of knowledge.
This was only about coffee. It’s not important in the grand scheme of things, but it still would have made a difference in my day and perhaps how I felt for many days afterwards. The way we speak to people – no matter how insignificant the topic, no matter how ignorant you believe them to be – is an opportunity to harm or help. Which do you choose?