When I was growing up, my dad always said, “the most important thing someone owns is their name.” He never failed to remind my brother and me of this anytime we interacted with someone wearing a name tag. Using the name of someone whom you are familiar with is easy, but I found it very awkward to use a stranger’s name at places like restaurants or hotels. Slowly but surely, I started making a point of saying “thank you (name)” whenever I spoke with someone wearing a name-tag to build out this habit. Once I started to actively and confidently practice what my dad taught me I noticed the difference it made in my interactions with total strangers. Most significantly, I noticed the smiles on their faces and glimmer in their eyes, as if their hearts were reaching out to say “thank you for noticing me.” This feeling intensified whenever I took the time to ask someone for the correct pronunciation, or ask for their name if they were not wearing a tag. I started becoming addicted to this small feeling of kindness.
This addiction led me to having one of my most memorable experiences, and it was shared with a man named Antonio.
Antonio and I worked in the same building in SoHo, NYC. He was an older man with wrinkles weighing down the features of his face. Whether it was summer or winter, he would wear a “New York” branded sweatshirt, clunky shoes and a small knit cap on the top of his head. He oversaw the service entrance at the back of the building. His main duties were operating the service elevator and picking up trash from each floor before 5pm. These tasks did not take much time, so he mostly sat in his chair on the ground floor looking out a very large window over the glamorous world of SoHo. The street our office was on was famous for commercial and movie shoots along with celebrity meet and greets, and Antonio had a first row seat to it all. Sometimes he would step out for a cigarette break or stand on the stairs if it was a nice day, but he never left his seat for too long. I heard from some employees that they did not know how to explain things to him when they were in need of some service and said he would not help out for certain tasks. In short, he was known as the grumpy old man who sat in the back entrance of the building.
I generally entered the building through the service entrance, so seeing Antonio became a part of my daily routine for nearly two years. When I would enter or leave I would casually say hello in his direction, he would slowly turn his head to look at me then back out the window without changing his expression. It felt very cold, a fabricated greeting that was not welcoming.
One cold day, I was waiting for the elevator when I noticed the space heater he had warming his feet. I made a comment about how it must be nice to have the heater, while shivers ran down my arms. He looked at me briefly to nod, then looked back out the window. The elevator arrived and before entering I paused and turned around. I asked him for his name. He quickly looked back at me with wide eyes, and after a brief moment, responded, “Antonio,” while flashing a slight grin. I smiled back, saying, “Antonio, my name is Barbie. I will see you later today!,” before turning to get on the elevator.
From that day on I said his name every time I saw him. I quickly found out that Antonio spoke horrible English. Even the words he was able to say were inaudible as he would slur them together. We never had any profound conversations, but mostly talked about the weather being hot or cold. When the film crews were outside I would joke that they were looking for their main actor while pointing at him, which always made him roar with laughter, showing off his many gaps between his teeth. Sometimes I would bring him a coffee after a walk outside with co-workers. Many of my coworkers were surprised that I not only knew his name but that we would have conversations during which he would smile and laugh. He didn’t seem grumpy anymore.
I began to feel I was having an impact on Antonio’s days of sitting alone and watching the world around him. If I didn’t see him in the morning but passed him later in the day he would look at me concerned, “I no see you!” I would smile and assure him, “I’m here now Antonio!” For a long time I was patting myself on the back, thinking that my dad would be proud, that I made a difference in someone’s life. Then one day I realized that Antonio was actually having an impact on mine. Everyday I looked forward to the end of my commute when I would open the door of the building to say “good morning Antonio!” and see his instant smile greeting me. I started feeling a bit sad on the mornings when I would not see him, like an essential part of my day was missing. His smile was not picture perfect by any means, but it made me really happy each time I saw it.
It’s easy to take your name for granted knowing that we have the privilege to hand it out on a business card or nicely written on a coffee mug. I feel that it only starts there and it’s rare that we take the time to really notice the people and things around us that play a secondary role in our lives. I challenge you to read someone’s name next time you are at the grocery store, or ask your bus driver for his, and use it in a quick conversation. Not only will it brighten their day, but you will feel the impact as well.