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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

the corner booth

Every union organizer has a ritual. 

It might be where you stand near the gate where the cars drive up to the job site. It might be how you hold the clip board when you get ready to knock on a door. It might be how you sort and re-sort your list, going over names of workers, shifts and departments until you know them like they were permanently etched inside your skull.

For me, in this case, it was a table, in a cafeteria, in a hospital.  I'd order a cup of coffee and sit in the same chair, facing the same direction with my materials carefully tucked away and my ball cap sitting on the chair beside me.

And then I'd wait...

It was a big city Children's Hospital serving kids from all over.

If you live anywhere near me, you've seen it from the freeway, Life Flight helicopters occasionally touching down yards from traffic.

I'd sit at a central table, facing the entrance, cashiers and serving stations to the right of me and salad bar at my back. I'd be there morning, noon, and night.

Sometimes there were managers a few tables away. Sometimes groups of workers would come to see me. Other times it was just me and a handful of families and one or two workers on break. 

Over time, you'd get the rhythm of the workplace.

You'd learn all the little ways to meet someone. To hear them out. You'd share the details with your fellow organizers. You'd have a great conversation at 7am and a not so great conversation at 8am. You'd do your work and the hospital workers did theirs.

And in the midst of all this families would come and go. And eventually you learned that part, too. The kids who were there for weeks on end, you'd recognize. The kids who were there for a quick evaluation, you wouldn't. The sisters and brothers, grandmas and mothers, fathers and uncles and friends would come and go in an endless procession.

And that's when I noticed the corner booth. 

It was the one you couldn't see from the entrance. Hidden, and to the right. This was the first booth you would naturally sit in if you walked in to the cafeteria and didn't want to eat.

And that's where they always came, sitting side-by-side, backs to the wall, hidden, the best they could manage, from everyone. It was unerringly young couples, that's what parents mostly are. And that's where they would process their bad news.

And, yeah, it broke your heart because you knew that while a Children's Hospital is the best place in the world for a child who is sick...and so many kids go home healthy, go home happy, go home healed. It was also a place where families learned bad news, too. 

And it just takes a piece of you to see that.

To see a couple crying and hugging and knowing that there's not really anything you can say or do for them at all, other than to be present and respectful by giving them their privacy and space.

::

I don't have much to add to this reflection other than to say that while I happened to be working on a union campaign, the workers who work in that cafeteria work there every day.

They know the corner booth better than I could say.

They know, too, firsthand, the joy that comes from healing, from healthy food, from the respite of a shared meal in a stressful time.

Life, real life, after all, isn't black and white, one thing or another, it's a continuum, it's shades of gray. 

But sometimes, life hurts so much.

And, personally, it is hard to convey how much respect I have for everyone who is there, who is truly witness, and helpful, in ways large and small, to others in time of need. 

::

Our society has become so frenetic and obsessed with trivia. We've gotten so hooked into our routines and rituals. In an age with access to more information than ever before, we've lost track of what truly matters. None of us is immune.

I've long since finished with that campaign and I no longer work as a union organizer.

But sometimes, when I'm taking that curve on the freeway by the hospital, I'll see a Life Flight helicopter hovering to make a landing, and I'll think of the corner booth and all the workers waiting to help.

And then I'll think of the child inside.

And my heart will jump.