Late evening, New York city. Men hauling pipe on a busy sidewalk. I see shadows, light, pedestrians and aging cement. More deeply, I see manual workers playing their part to deliver materials to others who will used them to fix a problem, maintain a system or realize a dream. Although I can’t tell much about these individuals beyond their forms and a hint of clothing, they speak to me of the masses of people who provide the goods and services that keep the society running—the everyday people whose hauling, building, cleaning, repairing, collecting, moving and monitoring activities are essential yet not glamorous.
I’m reminded of a luncheon I attended at the headquarters of a multinational corporation. Waiting in the lobby for my host, I read their impressive statement of mission and values. I was introduced to the CEO and other officers. Professional dress at every level. Personable and professional interactions. Luxurious facilities. The details of the meeting are lost to me now—except for one that I will never forget.
After lunch my host, a relatively new department manager, led me to a place where we dropped off our food trays. Behind the open window, an older woman wearing a hairnet and apron busily took the trays as we slid them to her so she could move them onto a conveyor belt headed for people who separated the items on their way to the dishwasher. My host and I were talking but she stopped. “Excuse me David,” she said. She turned and set her tray down, but held onto it so the woman couldn’t take it. “Hello!” she said, looking her in the eye. “I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you do here.” She said something else, but I didn’t hear it. A line was forming in back of me. Moving on, I asked my host if she knew this woman. She didn’t. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge people for what they do,” she said. I asked if everyone there did that and she answered, “Probably not. But I have to.”
Indeed. Acknowledgement. She probably made that woman’s day. Certainly, she made my day. And the best part, it left such an impression that I have ever since wanted to emulate her simple words of kindness. And so this image calls me to acknowledge and appreciate the hard working and largely unnoticed individuals—particularly those I encounter—who keep everything running. They constitute the foundation of the social pyramid. And without them, it could not stand.
We’re a country that acknowledges only those who stand on the victory podium, but some of my heros come in last.