Thursday, November 3, 2011

Commit Random Acts of Waving

I want to tell you an absolutely true story.

There is a senior living housing complex about a half mile from my office. On the way to work, and often on the way back, I’d see a man with very white hair, walking along the street.

Every day he would wear essentially the same outfit, which was a short sleeved white shirt and black pants. Other than his noticeable white hair, he would be somebody you’d pass on the street without notice.

At different times during the afternoon, but always in the morning about 7:30, this man would walk along the street which I drove on my way to work, and he would wave to the oncoming traffic. It was every morning. I never saw him miss a day.

I thought it was charming. Without fail, his waving would draw my attention to him. Seeing him every morning would draw at least a pleasant thought, if not a smile and an occasional wave back to him. Thinking that he wouldn’t see me wave, particularly if I was going in the other direction, I’d usually just stick my hand up in the air and quickly pull it back down.

He had such energy. The man looked eighty if he was a day, and may have been much older. He walked with somewhat of a halting gait, slightly stooped, but always sticking his arm high into the air, waving with enthusiasm. I liked it when I saw him, and I saw him virtually every day.

One morning, the traffic was somewhat slower than usual. An accident along the way made the driving more deliberate. I looked to the left, and saw the fixture of the morning walking along his steady route, waving at the cars as they passed. He sported the white shirt, black pants, and beautiful white hair. There he was, hand outstretched and waving from the wrist, with a smile on his face.

Then I saw something that I hadn’t noticed in all the mornings I’d seen him. I probably wasn’t paying very close attention in the past, and they may have been doing this all along, but with my car crawling along, the drivers in this traffic caught my

attention with the most unusual form of collective automotive behavior I’d ever seen. They were all waving back! Almost to a car, the folks behind their wheels were responding to him. Some stuck their hands out of their windows; others just lifted their wrist off the steering wheel and wiggled their fingers. But, every single driver within eyeshot of the man waved back.

After seeing that, I’d make a point of watching what the traffic was doing, and try to look at the people looking at him. Every morning, they waved. Every single morning, most of the folks in the traffic in both directions, waved.

This went on for several months, probably the better part of a couple of years, but I really don’t remember. It was an every morning observation. Just like observing the sky, the trees, the traffic and the noise, I observed the man on the street waving his arm to hundreds and thousands of anonymous friends in their cars. He eased the experience of driving to and from wherever we were going. It was nearly a guarantee to smile every single day.

One day, I noticed he was missing. This happened again the next morning, and the next. After a week, I realized that he hadn’t been there
from one Monday morning to the following. From

that point on, I didn’t see him anymore. I’m embarrassed to tell you that I don’t know why he stopped showing up, and I never found out.

I wanted to know why he’d disappeared, but I knew, or at least expected, that my inquiry would be met with bad news. An accident, a stroke, possibly even his death, may have been the answer I’d receive, and I selfishly never asked. To date, I have never found out what happened, and because he has been gone over two years now, I expect I’ll never see him on the street again.

That is why I did what I did a few weeks ago. I’d been thinking about how much I missed seeing him every day, and how much I’d missed having that guaranteed smile on my face on my way to work. So, one morning I took a few hours off from work. I got up a little early, got dressed, cancelled my first couple of morning clients, and parked about a half- mile from my office. I got out of my car and took a little walk. Did I mention that I happened to be wearing a white shirt?

For about an hour, I walked back and forth along the route to my office, and I waved at everybody. Not a wave like I was trying to draw attention to myself, but like my predecessor with the white hair,
I was waving as part of my walk. I didn’t want to make a point of waving. I wanted to be like him,

just a man out for a morning walk, smiling and waving to the traffic.

I must tell you, for about ten minutes I thought I was going to be arrested and taken away in one of those nice coats with the very long sleeves. It’s one thing for a kindly looking old man to wave to traffic. But, a middle-aged bearded Irish guy waving…well, I thought people would think I’d need to go back to the locked ward before I was taken there against my will. I was sure, at the very least, that several people would roll down their windows and yell, “You look so dumb,” “You don’t do it as well as the last guy,” or something equally as encouraging.

For the first few minutes I didn’t make much eye contact with the traffic, if any. I just walked along the road, looking straight ahead, waving to the onlookers. I kept my head down, sticking my arm up a little, doing this as if I was carrying out a penance.

When I finally got enough courage to look up, I saw something I truly didn’t expect. The drivers, en masse, in almost every car, were waving back to me. A smile came to my face and lightness to my step, and had I not scheduled a therapy session for later in the morning, I would’ve been on the street

all morning just walking, smiling, and waving. I was having a blast.

Since then, on occasion I’ve had a chance to walk along that piece of road. Every time I do, I always wave to the traffic. Maybe it’s in honor to my anonymous old friend, or maybe it’s just an effort to keep the tradition alive. But I’ve found myself, on more than one occasion, waving and smiling to the approaching traffic. Every time, without fail, I’ve seen most of the drivers in every car smile and wave back.

You see this more often than you may think. There are waving kids trying to get you to pull into a car wash, folks directing you to a garage sale, or those people on the corner with big directional signs to send you to a store. I’ll bet if you were waved to, you waved back at them. Or you may have even waved first. It’s out there. And it’s such a nice, pleasant gesture.

I benefit from that fleeting contact, and I’m going to gather that you do, too. It truly does lift your day, and it is an action in passing, something that is done almost as an afterthought. They wave, you wave back, and both continue on with business
as usual.

So here’s the deal. Be conscious of waving at people. I know I’ve referred to waving while you’re driving, because that’s how this activity was introduced to me. At the very least, wave to people who let you into their lane. Wave if you’ve unintentionally cut somebody off. Wave if you are slowing up the traffic and you are just asking for patience. At the very least, make it a part of your everyday etiquette when you’re behind the wheel. I know that this essay started with introducing you to that lovely man who waved during his walk. I’m not suggesting that anybody take up that pastime, because I know most of you would feel as self-conscious about it as I did. But, if you decide to make waving at people who are walking down your
street a part of your everyday habits, if you decide to walk near a busy street and greet the traffic as they fly past, there is a precedent. And, this is just such a neat thing.

His name was Eiler Larson. As the story was told to me, he was a homeless man who stood on the main street of Laguna Beach every day and waved to the people in their cars as they came into the city. He did this for years, maybe even decades. He was such an enduring fixture of the city that a local hotel gave him a room and a local restaurant gave him meals. This went on for over twenty years.

When he died, the city council voted to erect a statue of Mr. Larson at the place where he stood for all those years, greeting the incoming to the city. That statue remains there today.

So, start waving. And if you get very brave, get out of your car and wave to the oncoming traffic. You’ll feel better and Lord knows the people driving in your direction will get a kick out of it. They’ll smile and wave back, too. I know. I’ve tested the theory.

And who knows? If you do it long enough, you might get a statue erected for your efforts. It happened once. It could happen again.

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