You Have the Power to Change a Life in an Instant
One sunny afternoon last year, I took my car to the local car wash, completely unaware that this mundane task was about to take me on a cathartic journey into a world I didn’t really understand.
I’d driven to this particular car wash because it was the best one in the area. It was a mechanical system where your car would be treated by an employee first, after which you would then would drive it forward onto a conveyor belt that would pull it through the washing mechanism moving from station to station. Unlike most car wash systems, it did a pretty good job and was worth travelling a couple of miles to.
As usual, I parked up first, went inside and paid the cashier for the privilege, then drove round to the entrance to be greeted by whoever was on duty. As I approached on this particular day I was pleased to see that there was no queue and I would be able to head inside immediately.
But as I got closer, the young man on duty started placing cones in front of the pre-wash area, thereby closing it off. Having been assured just moments earlier it was open, I was not pleased to see this. I was even more irritated when I noticed he had a pack of cigarettes in his hand and was clearly closing it off so he could have a quick smoke.
I wasn’t in a hurry, but I didn't appreciate having to wait there while he sneaked off for a quick puff. Who knows how long he’d be? No, this would not do. I, after all, was the customer. I’d had to have a word.
I opened the door and leaned out of the car.
“Excuse me mate, I’ve just got my ticket for the car wash, I’d like to get it done now please.”
I was a bit short with him because in my head I felt I was about to be taken advantage of. No one likes that. Sometimes people need to be told, don’t they?
The young man, probably no more than twenty years of age, flashed a look at me that was full of anger. He was of average height and build, with short hair and a single earring, and dressed in the obligatory blue overalls. He very much typified the sort of young employee you’d see for this type of job, the sort of thing I’d actually done myself at his age.
There was a slight hesitation, as if he was thinking over his next action or response, and then he burst into fully animated — and unexpected — action. Screaming an expletive, he kicked one of the cones he had just carefully placed as hard as he could and I ducked as it sailed over my car into an empty space behind, landing with a thud and scrape. He screamed, literally screamed, and threw his cigarettes against the wall as hard as he could. He turned back to take on the second cone, presumably in similar manner.
In a second I was furious. Not only had I been forced to ask someone to reopen the car wash I had been assured was open just minutes earlier, I now had to endure this ridiculous charade and have a cone kicked at me just because he was being denied a quick fag for a few minutes. This was unacceptable. I was, after all, the customer. Take your temper tantrums somewhere else, mate. I want my car cleaned. Right now.
As the next cone received the full force of his right foot and verbal assault, I wondered who I was going to complain to. But then I had a change of heart, almost certainly due to the anger that was now pumping through my veins.
No, I wasn’t going to complain to anyone. I’m a grown man, I can deal with this stupid, spoiled, workshy kid. There’s no way he’s going to get away with this behavior. He’s going to get an earful from me and he’s going to do his damn job. Why am I even having to do this?
I grabbed the door release and jumped out of the car, ready to go into battle. As I marched up to him, full of intent and hateful words forming at the back of my throat, I noticed, for the first time that he looked something other than annoyed.
He looked stressed. If I didn’t know better, he looked like he was close to breaking point. His eyes were puffy and red, his demeanor was that of a broken man, on the very edge of total implosion. His eyes, now that I could see them clearly, were not full of anger as I had assumed seconds earlier, they looked at me and seemed to say ‘help me.’
Immediately, my own perception changed. I was still marching towards him with the momentum my initial anger had given me, but I now slowed and raised my hands as if I was approaching a dangerous, wild animal and wanted to show my benign intent. He stopped. I stopped, still with hands raised by my sides. We faced each other, both of us unsure what to do next.
The world around us was busy, but for the moment, there was only the sound of his rapid breathing, and the sound of my car softly ‘binging’ behind me where I had left the keys in the ignition and the door open. We locked eyes. He seemed completely lost. I felt, intently, he wanted me to help him, but couldn't form the words, or perhaps was afraid to for reasons of fear, rejection or ridicule.
I gingerly stepped forward, slowly now, lowering my hands as if dropping a weapon and surrendering. He was motionless still, staring intently at me. He allowed me to come within inches of him and I asked him, in a voice not much louder than a whisper,
“Hey man, are you OK?”
The words again triggered an instant reaction. In one move, he broke our gaze as the features on his face screwed up preparing him for the tears that were now inevitable and he looked down, evidently ashamed.
He ran off through the door that stood next to the car wash labelled ‘staff only’.
I had no idea what I was dealing with, or what I should do next. Almost on impulse, I walked briskly back to my still ‘binging’ car parked at an awkward angle, locked it up, picked up his cigarettes and walked into the forbidden area behind the door.
It was was no more than a tiny, windowless storeroom, full of materials and chemicals for the car wash and a single, tatty swivel chair placed next to a worn desk covered in delivery notes. The young attendant, now sobbing violently, was slumped in the chair and looked up as I entered. He only seemed half surprised to see me.
I approached him and lowered myself down to his height, now kneeling, uncomfortably, on the damp floor.
I placed his cigarettes on the table next to him and my hand gently on his arm.
“It’s OK” I said softly “just take a minute”
And we did. I sat and waited as he gathered his composure — two complete strangers in a tiny little room full of junk next to a petrol station, unseen by the rest of the world.
Gradually, his story started to pour out.
His name was Aaron and though he didn't say it directly, it seemed to me he was on the verge of a mental breakdown. He’d always suffered from anxiety of some sort, but this felt worse and he implied his parents didn’t understand what was happening to him, much less himself.
He felt he didn't know where to go. He described it as the ‘walls closing in’, an expression I had used myself some years earlier when I was going through a tough time mentally as my business failed. Incredibly, although this had been going on for months, he hadn’t sought any outside help, despite his clearly supportive girlfriend urging him to do so.
I listen, feeling unqualified to do any more and scared that saying the wrong thing would make the situation worse. He talked and talked, apparently relieved he could offload some of the weight. As he did so, his shoulders straightened and some of his confidence returned.
I explained to him that he could go to his doctor and seek a referral to a specialist which he was surprised to learn, and I was surprised he didn’t know. Realizing this was actually something I could help him with, I found his local surgery where he had been registered all his young life online and rang them, there and then. He spoke to them first, but sensing they were not understanding the urgency of the situation nor he confident enough to portray it, I took the phone, with his permission, and spoke to them directly.
Explaining, more or less, what had transpired, who I was and my genuine concern for this young man, they agreed to an emergency appointment the following morning at the surgery. He would be assessed and the appropriate advice or treatment offered. The relief on his face was palpable.
By now we had been in that little room for some twenty minutes or so. When we emerged, a queue of confused looking people had formed in their cars behind my awkwardly parked vehicle. One of them had evidently gone to get the boss, who was was surprised to see me emerge from the storeroom with Aaron as he approached.
Seeing he was angry and making a beeline for the vulnerable Aaron, I intercepted him and quickly explained the problem in a vague, non specific way, but with enough clarity to convey the seriousness of the situation. He backed off, seeing Aaron remove the remaining cones (a little more carefully than the first two unfortunate victims) and resume his position at the mouth of the car wash.
As the boss returned to the main building with my reassurances, Aaron beckoned for me to come over and powered up the pre-wash pump. I pulled up and waited inside as he blasted the car all the way round watching him as he did so. He seemed a different man, even despite not ever getting round to that cigarette.
The car wash conveyor pulled me in and he disappeared from view through soap suds and water. Once complete, I pulled forward a few feet and once again alighted from the car to look down the length of the car wash mechanism. Aaron was busy washing down the next vehicle.
I called out his name, loudly and firmly, but even so he could barely hear me over the moving parts. He stopped what he was doing and looked up. I gave him the thumbs up accompanied with a questioning look, and he replied with a slow and deliberate thumbs up with his right hand, which he raised high above his head. As he did so, he mouthed the words “Thank you” as clearly and as slowly as he could, and, for the first time, I felt I saw some relief in his face.
There was a short, lingering look as I jumped back in my car to clear the exit and find my way into the afternoon traffic, full of thought.
Weeks later I was in the area and decided to call in. Another employee was busy spraying cars and it seemed a world away since my encounter with Aaron had occurred. The cones, two still slightly bent, were stacked neatly at the side, and the storeroom door was closed, now forbidden to me.
I asked if Aaron was there and learned than he had quit recently for another job. From his demeanor I deduced that this had been a decision he had made, and there appeared to be no ill will involved from either party. He’d simply moved on.
I never saw Aaron again and, to be honest, I’m not sure I would recognize him now if I did. To this day, I sometimes wonder if he attended that appointment and found the help he needed, and I sincerely hope that was the case.
But I also learned something that day. I had played over in my mind how differently that moment could have unfolded had I given into my initial, blind anger at apparently being taken advantage of. Perhaps I would have pushed him over the edge, finally destroying what remained of his fragile state with my harsh words and aggressive stance. It terrifies me to think about it and where it could have led. It wasn’t out of the question to me that he could have done something really stupid. And permanent.
How often do we judge people or a situation based on what we feel or what we think we see and act according to those beliefs rather than the facts? Human nature makes us like that, but it IS possible to overrule it if we take a moment — just a moment — to think outside of ourselves. Sometimes we can make the most positive of differences by giving nothing but a few minutes of time and attention.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Aaron had actually given me the gift of understanding a little better, and I am forever grateful for it.
And perhaps, one day, I will be able to thank him.