by Mimi Montgomery
So – it’s spring, the start of a new season, once-dormant life now re-germinating in earnest, blinding calves emerging from shorts with startling enthusiasm. Whether you be flora or human, it’s hard not to to be joyful while wiggling in the sun after a long winter. And a long winter it was. No matter your beliefs, creeds, or inclinations, 2016 was a bit of a doozy – even if you didn’t own a Samsung Galaxy.
Hurricane Matthew, the Panthers’ Super Bowl performance, that never-ending construction on Hillsborough Street – the year was not without its struggles. And I didn’t even mention politics, or that my grocery store stopped selling my favorite flavor of LaCroix.
When times get tough, it makes me glad to be a part of our little corner of the South. Raleigh is a blend of the best of the old and new guard – Southern in its heritage, manners, and love of families and lore; outward-looking in its progression, tolerance, and innovation. Plus, people are, for the most part, just genuinely kind. It’s comforting to know that people will be polite to you even when things are tough. At the very least, they’ll give you the courtesy of waiting until the door closes behind you before they start talking smack.
It took me a while to remember this. When I originally moved back to North Carolina, I arrived in Raleigh and was baffled – why were all these people smiling and waving at me? I had no idea who they were. Did I have something on my face? Had I forgotten to wear pants again? Then I remembered: Oh, right, that whole “polite” thing.
It wasn’t long before I fell back into the routine of smiling and throwing out a genuine “How are you?” to anything I came across in my path – businessmen on the streets, moms pushing carts in the grocery stores, particularly friendly dogs, lampposts that appeared vaguely human in the dark. I remembered how to have mini-conversations with people everywhere I went. (However, I have to admit, there are times when good, old-fashioned social isolation has its appeal: When you’re waiting to have your oil changed, you’re not exactly looking for a debrief on another customer’s non-threatening medical conditions. Some things are best left to the imagination.)
It really is astounding the lengths some of our neighbors will go to in the name of friendliness. On one wintery, caffeine-depleted afternoon, I was headed back to the office via Capital Boulevard and in desperate need of coffee. I pulled over to a small coffee truck on the side of the road, one I had passed multiple times but never really noticed. I grabbed my wallet, zipped up my coat, and got out of my car to walk to order at the window. I was immediately greeted not by a display of fresh scones or a list of ethically sourced local coffees, but by a woman undressed from the waist up. I stood for a moment, shocked. I somehow managed to spit out an order without making an embarrassed, adolescent joke.
As I waited for my coffee, I realized that all the women in the truck were about as clothed as a group of newborns. This seemed like a serious liability to me when handling steaming hot coffee, but I suppose one must live life on the edge (or in vague violation of state health codes). Other than the nudity thing, they appeared to run a tight ship: They were all exceedingly friendly and sweet, offering me skim milk or Stevia for my drink, and for the price, it was a pretty OK cup of coffee. I haven’t checked the Yelp reviews, but I imagine there have to be some pretty, ahem, enthusiastic ones.
I walked back out to my car, coffee in hand, blushing and giggling to myself like a 12-year-old boy. As I prepared to leave, I heard someone yelling behind my car, and I looked in my rearview mirror.
There, rushing down the side of four-lane packed Capital Boulevard traffic, one of the women was running toward me. And no, she hadn’t deigned to cover anything up. Now, I really don’t consider myself a prude; nudity has never been a real hang-up for me, and I’m a firm believer that women can do whatever they please with their bodies. But in this moment, the spirit of my Southern grandmother possessed me: All I wanted to do was hand this girl a thick cardigan and feed her something warming and caloric. I mean, it was cold outside! Some body parts that should never be introduced to sub-30-
She knocked on my window, and in a combination of dread and fascination, I rolled it down. They didn’t get very many female customers, she explained to me. (No way.) They’d loved having a girl stop by, and she wanted to give me a stack of gift cards so that I’d become a regular.
And then, in an instant, I felt terrible for my previous judgments. No matter the temperature or her lack of clothing, I had to hand it to her – she had a serious dedication to customer service. My bar would forever be set higher thanks to her. I mean, the checkout lady at Harris Teeter was always exceedingly kind, but had she run through freezing temperatures half-clothed for me?
This is an extreme example, but an important one. Without advocating for her sartorial decisions, this woman showed what it means to go out of your way to benefit someone else – to make their day, no matter how eccentric or graphic your contributions may be.
I write this from a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., where I recently moved to attend graduate school. There’s been a lot of turmoil in this city recently, but there’s been a lot of decency and kindness, too. Despite what you see on the news, I’ve seen people hold each other a little closer, slow down a little longer, go a little out of their way to help someone else.
It reminds me a lot of home, of North Carolina, of Raleigh. Of meeting someone in the grocery store and quickly becoming fast friends. Of the kind auto mechanic who unlocked my car for free because he recognized me from around town. Of the sweet woman down the street who let me pick flowers from her front yard, just because she knew I liked daffodils.
I miss these things about Raleigh, but I’m comforted by the familiarity of what I see here in Washington. Times can be tough, are tough, but we are all human. None of us are without our faults, our flaws, our prejudices – such things are inherent. But that doesn’t have to impact our love for one another.
I, for one, aim to keep chattering away Raleigh-like to everyone I pass. To try to be a little more kind, a little less quick to judge, to listen to my neighbors. To shed whatever bias or judgments or clothing necessary to make someone else’s day. Because really, it’s true what they say – it’s not the half-naked baristas that matter, but the quality of the coffee served inside.