When I was in high school, I worked at Dunkin Donuts. My favorite part about working there was interacting with different people and hearing their personal stories.
I especially loved chatting with the regulars, who were like old friends stopping by to say hello. But there was one person who’s story I remember the most.
This customer always ordered a cup of iced water and a donut to go along with it. He wore the same brown and gold sweater, tattered jeans, and winter cap on his head that smelled something awful each time, even on scorching summer days.
It was odd because he looked like he was homeless and displaced but he never begged for anything and always paid for his donut whenever he got it.
I used to tell my family he had ‘Fear Factor Nails'(it actually should have been ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ nails) that practically curled up and around into spirals and how you could catch whiffs of his stench from miles away. One day, he came into our shop smelling so bad that I became horribly nauseous, which made me upset.
“Why can’t people just take care of themselves?” I whined to a co-worker once he left after that particular visit. “Soap exists and you can buy it for only a dollar; there’s no excuses.”
“He really does. But people say he doesn’t care anymore because of what happened to him,” my coworker replied.
I cocked my head in surprise. I was all ears. According to my coworker, the man had a lot of money but his wife died and it affected him so much emotionally, that he completely neglected himself.
I tried to picture him clean shaven and well-dressed with an attractive lady next to him. But all I could see were his long fingernails brushing against the wrinkled bills he tossed onto the counter for his donut and water.
He also shut everyone out who tried to intervene and reason with him to change, my co-worker explained. I could see him doing that, as he never interacted with any of us when he came into our shop other than to request his order in a gruff, low voice. And he always stared straight ahead when you addressed him.
It was hard to believe that the smelly clothes and rough demeanor was all an effort to mask some deep emotional pain. I couldn’t picture tears dropping out of the stone cold eyes that stared as if in a trance.
Lo and behold, this was the man’s (sad) story, which had shaped him into who he was, for better or for worse. After that, my complaints about him while at work died down. Whenever his scent bopped against my nose after entering the shop, I held my breath and served him as I did everyone else, with no complaints.
I still mentioned him at home sometimes but it was less with an air of insult and more as a way of voicing the sad reality of this hurt soul’s fate.
Since then, I’ve realized that one of the toughest yet most important things we should do as human beings with our own fair share of issues, ideas, and stories is to honor and respect the stories of those around us. How? By accepting people for who they are and how they became that way.
That’s what makes good writing too–when you can capture a character for who they are and not for who you want them to be. It’s not always easy but it’s still one of my main goals when I set out to write a story and live life day to day.