When I was a teenager my mother kicked me out of the house. It was Christmas day. She “let” me stay in the house until Christmas was over (thanks, I think?) and the next day, she told me to pack my things and get out. I stuffed as much as I could into a suitcase. Sweaters billowed out of the sides as I sat atop the suitcase, wrestling with the zipper as tears streamed down my face. A few months later, I was legally emancipated and homeless.
As you can imagine, when the holidays come around, I don’t feel particularly warm or fuzzy. In fact, I try to avoid them at all costs. Not Christmas carols, no holiday cards, no parties or mistletoe. Just an ordinary day. For a long time, I worked every holiday. It was easy-I was in the food and beverage industry and while other people resented the task, I looked forward to it; the routine, the process, the policy and procedure. I was one of the younger shift supervisors to be promoted to Assistant Manager at Starbucks-I was 22 at the time, which doesn’t sound terribly young, but it is when you’re overseeing the operations of 40 employees and a $25,000 a week business, which is a lot of coffee.
When I was promoted, I moved to the Starbucks in Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. I hated that store. I hated that store with every fiber of my being. My previous stores were lively and cheery neighborhood stores. The customers were friendly and welcoming. I knew them, the names of their spouses/kids/pets/in-laws. I knew when they were going on vacation. I knew exactly what temperature they liked their lattes, how many pumps of mocha went into their drinks. And then I was transferred to the BI store… “The Deathbucks,” we called it. It was cold, the customers were rude-doctors don’t want to talk to lowly baristas after they’ve been on call for umpteen hours. And sick people aren’t exactly in the mood to chat.
So, I did what any mature 22-year old would do: I whined to my District Manager who told me that he’d try to transfer me out as soon as there was an opening at another store. I spent about four months at Beth Israel Hospital store. My last week was the first week of January in 2005. It was right before Christmas, and I was certainly not looking forward to the nurses coming in 5 minutes before we closed, order 27 drinks and not tipping. Truth be told, I always gave those bitches decaf. I had a couple of favorite customers-I always did, wherever I went. They’re the customers who I treated more like friends than patrons. They had something sparkly inside them that called out to me. Dan was my first favorite at that store.
Dan had stage four melanoma-he’d lost an arm and had Had sterotactic brain surgery three times by the time I met him, but he never stopped smiling. One Saturday afternoon before Christmas, I was in the back doing the security deposit. I heard my coworker Dave’s voice from behind the wall.
“Karen is in the back,” Dave says.
I poked my head around the wall. “Do you need me?”
I saw Dan and his friend, smiled and stepped away to put the deposit back int he safe. I’d be scolded for not doing the deposit on time, but it wasn’t important. Not as important as Dan. “Hello, Handsome!” I squeal. I called Dan “Mr. Handsome” one day on a whim and he blushed like a schoolboy, so it stuck. Dan was worn down by the treatments. Dan perked up and gave me a smile and a wave. He looked so tired and his voice was hoarse. We’d gotten really good at pantomiming to each other at the register, speaking in points, nods, and smiles.
“How are you doing?” I asked. He nodded side to side and looked towards the floor. He was having a bad day, but he never unloaded that information onto anyone. I tried to think of something I could do to help. I already knew Dan’s order. I poured a red eye (a shot of espresso in a cup of coffee) and walked back to the register. “Anything else today, handsome?” He was looking through the glass into the pastry case. I see him eye-ing a Cranberry Bliss Bar. I grabbed the pastry tongs, and pointed them towards the pastry. He shook his head, but I knew better. Even if he didn’t eat it, even if he ate the tiniest bite, it made me happy just to give it to him.
I placed it in a bag and slid it toward him. He took his credit card out of his wallet and I looked away, coyly, like I didn’t see it there. I started whistling and look away. “Handsome, it’s on me today. I looked back at him and he’s beaming.
“How come?” he said, his voice just above a whisper.
“Because you’re my favorite! And I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
“You just made my heart smile,” he says. He puts his only hand over his heart. It’s the sweetest thing I’d heard in a long time. I could feel a lump in my throat forming. I dug my fingernails into my khakis. I refused to allow the tears to well up in my eyes. A man who was dying spent a moment with me and I made his heart smile with coffee. “You’re very special,” he said. “Thank you.”
He walked over to the condiment bar to added milk and sugar to his coffee. I let out a sigh and headed back into the office to finish the deposit. I took a trip to the bank, dropped it in the night box, and stopped at CVS to my baristas some treats for working so well with me this morning. I forget sometimes that other people enjoy the holidays.
I got back to the store and Dan and his friend were sitting at one of the tables in the cafe. I gave him a wave and made a heart shape with my two index fingers and pointed to him and winked. He smiled and laughed. I realized I hadn’t done much in the store, so I started fiddling around with the brewers, cleaning and checked on the status of the store, which was kind of a mess. Dan walked over to the counter.
“You made my day. Thank you so much. You really don’t understand how special you made me feel.” His voice was so hoarse that I had to lean close to him so I could hear what he was saying.
“Dan, you make my day every time you come in here. I have to tell you though, I’m going to a different store next week.” He looks shocked and says, “I’ll see you Wednesday…”
I never saw Dan again. I moved to a new store and got “too busy” with life to check in. Dan passed away a couple of months later in March. And I wish I’d told him that he made my heart smile before he died. So this year, my Christmas wish is that you let people know when they make your heart smile.
For more information about Dan’s story:
Boston.com Running in Spirit