Wednesday, July 7, 2010


“Mornin’ Mike,” I said as I walked into one of my local hardware stores. Mike was a kid who had been working there for about three years. A good kid and usually helpful when I had questions. “How’ve you been?”

“Good morning, Mr. E,” he greeted. “Ehh, things have been better.”

That was an unusual response from Mike. He never complained. Even though we’d known each other for a few years, conversations were always about tools, or supplies, or advice on how to deal with a home maintenance or improvement issue. He was friendly. I was friendly. And even though we liked each other, it really wasn’t personal. It was always business. So his unusual response was quite noticeable and took me by surprise.

“Problems, Mike?” I asked, genuinely wanting to know the answer.

“Ohhh, I might have to get a different job.”

“How come? You doing okay here, aren’t you?”

“”That’s just the thing,” Mike said. “I’ve been here three years and I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Other guys have been here less time and they’re moving ahead of me. So-o-o, maybe I just need another job. Somewhere where they’ll recognize my talent or something.”

I made some rather innocuous statement of encouragement and he helped me find the filters I needed.

But as I sat in the car, getting ready to drive on to my next errand, I took a few moments to think about Mike’s situation.

As I said earlier, Mike is a good kid. He’s polite, friendly, and knowledgeable. As far as I knew his bosses didn’t have a problem with his job performance. But I wondered about his appearance, especially compared to the other employees who had moved ahead of him, despite their shorter length of employment.

Mike was, a sort of dirty kid. His hair was unkempt and often looked greasy. His jeans looked like he worked, slept, worked, slept, worked and slept in them for too many consecutive days. His fingernails were usually too long and sporting impacted dirt underneath them.

But, you know, it’s a hardware store. Most guys don’t seem to really mind that, because it’s a store about work. And not to be sexist, I’m going to guess that most women probably wouldn’t object that much either, for the same reason. It’s a store about work. People who work often get dirty.

But I think there may be a problem with the shop shirt he wore. While the other employees started their day with clean shirts, Mike’s was typically already dirty. As if he hadn’t washed it for a week, even though he was wearing it every day.

And yes, there was the hint of old sweat and body odor. And on particularly hot and humid days, the hint gave way to palpability.

So while Mike’s personality, dependability and work ethic worked for his success, his personal appearance probably worked against it.

I thought about going back into the store and sharing my thoughts with Mike, but questioned the appropriateness of it. After all, we weren’t family or friends, just a regular customer and a friendly employee.

So I went back in.

I asked Mike if he would like me to share some advice on how he might get ahead in his job, even if it meant hearing some things he might not particularly like.

Surprisingly, he agreed. We decided to meet at the corner café after his shift ended.

I learned a couple of things about Mike. He’d been living on his own for the last two years. He didn’t make a lot of money. In fact, he didn’t make enough to eat well or buy “extra” stuff like haircuts, shampoo and detergent, among other things.

So I told him that for the next six months, I would pay for a monthly haircut, buy a couple of extra shop shirts and pairs of jeans, and pay for his personal hygiene supplies, detergent and laundromat expenses, if he promised to pay daily attention to his personal appearance.

He asked why I was willing to do that. I simply told him, that’s what a good Samaritan does. He said he didn’t know what a good Samaritan was, but if I was willing to do that for him, he would commit to improving his personal appearance.

Six months later, he was still neat and clean every day he went to work, he had been given a promotion and a raise in pay, sufficient to take care of his own expenses. As good as his attitude had been, it was even better.

Why bother sharing this story with you? It’s not for any accolades or pats on the back. It is done with the hope that if you see someone with a need you can meet, to encourage you to go ahead and meet it. You might be surprised at who really benefits from the simple acts of understanding and compassion.

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