The Crazy White Lady and the Man of Iron

I am friends with the crazy white lady.

About a year and a half ago, I went to a Chinese buffet in Chandler, Arizona, for lunch one day. I was seated in a booth and told that Lisa would be my server.

I admit it. I’m a snob. You know how sometimes a theater director will say, “There are no small roles?” I guess I don’t really believe that, because to me on that day, a server at a Chinese buffet in Chandler sounded like a small role. And then I met Lisa, the crazy white lady.

A smallish, middle-aged woman with a big smile, Lisa approached my table like she was approaching a long-lost friend. She greeted me warmly, and she took me on a tour of the buffet. Then, during the meal, she came by a bunch of times and told me stories. Sometimes jokes. I noticed she did this with a lot of her clientele. She just bounced around and took care of everyone. Incidentally, we were the happiest section in the buffet that day. Her section always is.

When I told her I’d definitely come back to see her again, she said, “Just ask for the crazy white lady.” As it turns out, that’s what the staff calls her as she is the only white person on staff. Everyone else is Chinese.

We’ve become friends. She brightens my day, and she seems to love when I come in. She’s read my novels, for instance. Sometimes I ask her for ideas on things, and she loves to be included in my writing process.

She cooks turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas for the restaurant. No one asked her to do this. She volunteered. It’s awesome, by the way. We’ve been there for it twice. She teaches the Chinese workers how to curse in English. She shares great stories about her wacky family with everyone who will listen.

She’s taught me that life is what you give to it. If you approach life scared and silent, that’s what your life will be. If you celebrate every day, if you connect with the people around you, your life will be a celebration, and you’ll give and get so much.

Case in point is my husband Chuck’s good friend, Patrick.

When Patrick moved to Phoenix a couple years ago, he felt isolated. He didn’t know anyone here, and he wasn’t really the kind of guy who did well with getting to know people. He was introverted.

And then his thinking changed. He decided to be of service to others, rather than thinking so much about how lonely he was. He started to say hi to people at coffee shops and in supermarkets. Sure, I’m guessing there were failures in these attempts. Just like I’m sure some people think Lisa is “too much” at the buffet when all they want is a meal. But there were lots of successes, too. Sometimes, he’d anonymously buy people cups of coffee. He did other random acts of kindness, too. Just because he could.

Patrick has been making changes in all areas of his life, and one thing he’s been doing is training for the Iron Man triathlon. That event involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Given that I cannot run a mile without my legs getting tired, this is about as foreign an idea to me as flying to the moon, but Patrick has set his sights on it.

Anyway, if you volunteer at an Iron Man race, it gives you first shot at amateur registration for the next year. So Patrick did that.

The race was two weeks ago. Patrick was a volunteer in the same way he is a person. All giving. He told people he’d do whatever they needed. “Anyone need a hug?” he was yelling out, after the biking portion.

Some people did. One man in particular, a 72-year-old man, needed a hug. He told Patrick he was a recent cancer survivor, and he wasn’t sure he’d make it. Patrick held him tight. “You’re going to get through this,” he told the man.

Patrick then watched the marathon from about the 17-mile point. Hours and hours later, the 72-year-old man trudged by, struggling terribly. Patrick did what Patrick does. He joined him. He ran with him. For the final 9 miles of the race, he ran side-by-side, urging the man on. He helped the man finish, about 30 seconds under the time limit.

After the race, through tears, the man told Patrick he had recently lost his wife. During the race, he said, he felt his wife’s spirit next to him, through Patrick.

Could Patrick have stayed silent as a volunteer at an Iron Man race? Yes, but then the 72-year-old man would not have finished. And Patrick would not have had the life-changing experience of having helped the man finish.

Could Lisa stay silent as a Chinese buffet server? Sure. But think of all the people whose days she has brightened. Their days wouldn’t have been brightened, all those times. And who knows what that changed in their lives, and in the lives of others? We simply don’t know, when we throw a pebble out into the massive lake, where the ripples will lead.

This is what I’m learning about these days. In fact, it’s a major theme of my work-in-progress, The Porcupine of Truth. What can one person do? What happens when we bottle up our fear of other people and throw it away, and instead embrace the world like everyone else in it is also a human being? Lisa and Patrick make a difference in other people’s lives every day, sometimes a life-changing difference.

That’s not do-able when we sit on the sidelines. Or when we let fear guide us. What can I do today to make someone else’s life better?

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3 Responses to The Crazy White Lady and the Man of Iron

  1. “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.” – Betty Reese
    Small acts can and do change lives. That much needed smile from a stranger when the rest of your day is complete crap, a nod of encouragement from someone you admire, a solid recommendation for awesome BBQ sauce from a stranger at the super market…
    We’re all on this crazy ride together. It feels better when we remember that.
    Thanks. Now I feel like walking around smiling at people. ;)

  2. Amber Keyser says:

    My person like that was the janitor in my building during graduate school in Georgia. James was an elementary school custodian during the day and cleaned our building at night. I often worked late in the lab and thus our paths would cross. He always had a smile and a kind word and joy about him–even for a bunch of over-educated white kids like us. After my daughter died, he was one of the few people in my building who wasn’t afraid of my paralyzing grief. Instead of turning away as most of my peers did, he embraced me and kept being his wonderful, open self.

  3. Mark Sullivan says:

    I graduated high school with Lisa and her twin sister Laurie. They have always had this unstoppable, bubbly spirit. We lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone, so it sounds like she moved the small town spirit to Chandler! But can she swear in Chinese?

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