Sunday was a hard day.
It’s been about a year since I first met Ato Debebe (name changed). He used to work at the parking lot in my office building. I had to pass his booth on the way to the building entrance from my parking space and we often exchanged pleasantries. Ato Debebe, who I guess is in his mid-fifties, possessed the dignity of a seasoned Ethiopian man; he was understated and his eyes… his eyes had that layer of sadness that his polite, bright smile couldn’t hide. He always shook my hand with both hands and thought it was so gracious of me to give him a Christmas gift. He reciprocated.
On cold mornings Ato Debebe would wear a thick coat and gloves and shiver subtly in his heatless booth. We never talked about personal stuff until I finally noticed pictures of his two sons propped on the side of the cash machine.
His sons had just come to the States from
One day Ato Debebe disappeared. I didn’t see him for two weeks. When he finally showed up he looked frail and worn out. One of his sons had been ill, and since he didn’t have close family or insurance, he had to stay home to take care of his kid. He took the two weeks without pay and had to work double time to make up for the missed time.
I was terribly saddened by his story and tried to help, but he wouldn’t take any money. I gave him my home phone number and assured him I would contact Human Resources at the office to see if they had a job opening (he used to work as a civil servant in
I went on a business trip the next day for a week and forgot to call HR. The next time I saw Ato Debebe he looked even gaunter. He smiled broadly when he saw me. I told him I was out of town and promised to look into a job for him.
Weeks passed. I called HR, but never really followed up. Ato Debebe’s shift changed and I began to see less and less of him. One bitterly cold morning he told me that his hours were being cut, and for the first time he asked me about the job I had promised to look into. “Ahunis mereregN” (“I have had enough”) he said, and even though he smiled when he said it, I knew it took a lot out of him to ask for help.
I went on another business trip, came back and never followed up. He never mentioned it again, but I kept paying him lip service.
A few months back he disappeared again and this time he never came back. I allowed myself to be wracked with guilt and then moved on with life. I think I called him at home once but he never called me back.
This past Sunday, while I was stocking up on ridiculously overpriced snacks for a Superbowl party, I saw Ato Debebe cleaning and stocking one of the shelves in the grocery store. He was wearing the store’s apron. He wore glasses now. His hands shook a little as he placed cans of peas on the spotless shelf. I froze. An awful, awful feeling of guilt, shame and profound sadness washed over me. How could I have been so reckless?
I eventually summoned up the guts to walk sheepishly up to him. I tapped him on his shoulders. He turned around. He had aged. A lot. It took him a few moments for him to recognize me, and when he did, he smiled. I noticed his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. He shook my hands with both hands, and I pulled him in to kiss him on the cheeks. He said hello to my son and we proceeded to engage in small talk.
I finally broke down. I stumbled all over my ornate apology. He listened to me politely, nodding occasionally. “Aymechim eko ye’zih hager neger.” I asked him why he never called me back, hoping maybe that would absolve me. He was even gracious enough to disentangle me from that web of self indulgent hypocrisy. “When you left your number you didn’t leave all the digits,” he said. We both knew it was not true and I felt humiliated that I was asking him to bail me out from my own awkward ruse.
I asked why he had left his parking lot job. His kid had to have surgery. Ato Debebe missed so many days at work that he was let go.
I gave Ato Debebe my business card again and I took his home number. Again. I left with a grocery cart full of crap and a good dose of humility. It didn’t help when my son commented that Ato Debebe reminded him of his grandfather.
What’s the use of raging against the machine when I don’t practice the kind of justice and fairness I so readily demand of others? I don’t even know why I was so careless about following up on a job for Ato Debebe. I have no excuse. I wasn’t being mean. I was just careless, and I think that’s worse. Indifference is worse.
My mother used to say, “If you don’t care about your neighbors, you are not going to care about your country.” I thought I was generally a kind person, but I didn’t know I had this depth of unkindness in me.
How do we get rid of these every day carelessness', because until we do, we can’t demand kindness from those who want to lead us. We can’t keep wishing for a better
It was an awful, awful Sunday. I called HR on Monday, but what an awful Sunday.
On a brighter note, Gooch, thanks for volunteering to blog while I am on vacation. Send me your stuff and I'll post.