I have a secret relationship, one whose particulars would, in some other context, be scandalous. As things are, we could scarcely be more different.
His name is Barry, and he is long married in the traditional heterosexual way. I am a lesbian who — caught off guard by the right to wed — neglected to find a spouse. Also, he is black, and I am an only moderately tan white person.
We are socioeconomically star-crossed, as well. I am the beneficiary of all sorts of unearned privilege, from the aforementioned light skin to a middle-class upbringing and a graduate education that enabled two white-collar careers.
Barry, on the other hand, is a Walmart greeter. My Walmart greeter, though I share him with countless others who also are warmed by the breadth of his smile, the smooth-as-butter baritone of his ebullient greeting and — for women he knows feel the weight of age — the sweet caress of a mildly flirtatious compliment. (This is the only time I have seen polyamory work.)
Barry sounds like this:
I have received more compliments from Barry in the last few years than I did in the admittedly brief prime of my sexy life, some 25 years ago. Barry even says I look good in my form-fitting Prana pants which — let me say — I might, because while time has worked the usual mischief with my middle-aged face, I still have a runner’s physique.
Did my ex notice this? Not hardly. Or, she noticed and said nothing. Let me just tell you, people: Bad move. And I was guilty of the same: I often failed to notice or failed to mention what was beautiful about her, and there was plenty. Stoopid.
Here’s what we should have done, and what you should do: If the shadow of a kind (or gently racy) thought passes through your muddled, self-absorbed brain, speak it. Hell: Embellish it. Give the people you love and also those you barely know a little sugar. Be sweet. About their looks or their minds or their hearts or the tenderness they show animals. About how hard they try. About the fact that they got through another day without causing needless harm. Speak. Hug. Both.
Now, I’m not an idiot. (Actually, I’m just saying that because it’s an expression; I might be exactly an idiot.) I know Barry is blowing smoke about 85 percent of the time, and maybe 50 percent of the time even when I’m wearing my Prana pants. But it doesn’t matter. He loves his job — he loves his job — and his mission in the Walmart world is to make each of us poor slobs who come through the door — men, women, young, old, mildly or seriously crippled by life — a little happier. To lift us up.
This he does, unfailingly, in words and hugs that feel like encouragement. If I need to feel better about myself — which, really, is sort of an ongoing situation — I head to Walmart. And we hug, Barry and I. We tell each other how happy we are to see each other, how we make each other’s day. I don’t know if it’s true for him — Barry’s wife manages housewares, and he has many lesser loves — but it is for me. Barry makes my day because he genuinely cares about making others feel good.
Admittedly, our affection once created an awkward situation. I was crouched in the eyewear department, studying a low-slung display of accessories, when Barry spotted me. “Well, hello, darlin!’ he said in that big satin drawl, and before I could rise fully to greet him, I was enveloped in a hug. And we lost our balance. So there I was, sort of rolling around in the aisle, locked in an embrace with my Walmart greeter. And, you know: a little embarrassing. But it still felt good.
So this is my confession, and my tribute. To Barry, my Walmart romance. To Barry, who makes a lowly job magnificent, who does real good in the everyday world, who knows the value of a kind word, a big hug. May we all be more like you. *
*Barry White, Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe
This post was originally published in March 2016.