I wonder how many of us have heard stories about people who thought about ending their life, but changed their mind because they passed someone on the street who offered a kind smile. Stories like this reaffirm what is already known. People affect other people, even if it's unintentional.
I remember one Friday evening a couple of years ago. I had survived a very difficult week and decided to visit my favorite restaurant to chill out. When I arrived, the door was suddenly pushed open by the hostess. She welcomed me, but before she could ask if I wanted to be seated, I was already headed toward the bar.
A loud voice rang out from behind the bar. The bartender's animated greeting made me feel like a star character on "Cheers." I flashed a broad grin and returned the greeting. I made my way to a seat at the corner of the bar, and the bartender came over to ask me what I wanted to drink. After she took my order, I started looking around. Sitting across from me was a nice-looking older gentleman. Our eyes met. I smiled at him. He smiled back.
As I sipped my wine, I noticed that the bartender was hovering around me. It seemed she wanted to talk. So I asked her how her day was going. She launched into a detailed list of complaints she'd received from customers who were not pleased with either their meals or their drinks. These complaints led to a spat with her manager.
She tried to tell him she was having an off day because of personal problems and felt he should have cut her some slack. However, she said he was unsympathetic and told her if she didn't get her act together, and fast, she would be out of a job. She said the discussion put her in a bitter mood, and the demands from the Friday evening "happy hour" crowd weren't improving her mood.
Each time she left to wait on a customer, I'd watch her smear a fake grin across her face. For a moment, I thought, "Why did she tell me all of this?" I surmised that I must have exhibited a friendly look in order for her to feel comfortable enough to talk with me.
Eventually, the bartender returned with my dinner. She apologized for dumping on me and said she would leave me alone to eat my salad. I assured her that there was no reason to apologize.
After I finished my meal, the bartender came over to clear everything away. I asked for the check. She leaned forward and said that the gentleman on the opposite side of the bar had paid my bill. She could see by the confused expression on my face that I was having difficulty understanding the reason for his generosity.
She told me that his wife of 40 years had left him and he was having an extremely difficult time coping with it. He was forced to sell his home and move closer to his adult daughter, who lived out of the area. He told the bartender that he would be leaving town after he finished his meal. When he paid his bill, he told her that I had one of the nicest smiles he had ever seen and it made his day. He asked her not to say anything to me until after he was gone.
I wasn't afforded the opportunity to thank him for his generosity. But his kindness reminded me of the impact one small gesture could have on another person. It was a lesson for me to remember.
I was at the restaurant to relax after having a bad week. He was there to eat his last meal in a familiar place before moving on. To me, my smile was just a smile, but for him, it was a small light in a time of difficulty.
Terasa Goggins Gipson, a librarian and writer, lives in East Amherst.