All Smiles

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and although this isn't a visual experience (nor is this probably going to amount to a thousand words), I feel it is an accurate portrait of an imperfect society. The events that are the basis for this piece of writing are years since past. My name is Todd Watts, and I was twenty-three and barely earning a living as an assistant manager.

The company I worked for is not important, but I will tell you that it was one of the largest theater chains in the Northeast. It had been a typical Friday night although we had three movies opening, which made us a bit busier than usual. An employee had called out sick, but that was not a new thing either. Short-handed and slammed are not a good combination, and to top things off, the general manager was in gun-ho mode.

Mr. Banks, or Nelson as he was informally called around his second home, was cleaning everything in sight and lecturing twice as much. To every lesson spoken loudly across the lobby, I dutifully replied, "Yes, sir." I guess a bit of the Marines had stuck with me after all.

I was giving the box-office employee her evening break when Nelson approached me intending to enlighten. "I have figured out your problem...." Well, at this point, I was thinking to myself, trying to figure out which problem, and who had told him.

Next, I thought to myself that he had plenty of problems of his own to resolve. Newly divorced from both his wife and faith, he found his comfort in earning money he knew he would never allow himself the time to enjoy. So who was he to talk to me of problems, even as my superior? Thoughts such as those raced through my mind as he elaborated.

"Success is all in the facial expressions. You have to smile more. You will sell more that way. Per Caps go up then, and they are followed by the edges of the boss's lips." He laughed a little and turned to walk off, but could not help but turn once again and reiterate. "Just smile and you can sell the customer anything."

As he walked off, I pondered what he had said. I had not been feeling well that day, so I am sure I did not carry the most pleasant demeanor. By the same token, though, I know for a fact I had not been abrasive with either customers or coworkers. The things which needed to get done were getting done, and I felt that almost all was right in the world. I say "almost all" because of our upselling strategy.

It always bothered me that one must suggest a larger size or additional purchase to a customer. An example to drive the idea home for you is in order I think.   The price for our bottled water was just under three dollars at that time. The markup (the additional cost patrons pay on top of the wholesale price) was a whopping 850%! So someone comes up and orders a bottle of water, and not only am I supposed to feel good about myself for totally ripping this person off, I am suppose to suggest he or she buy some bulk candy for eight dollars a pound. All of these great business tactics are to now be topped off with a smile, regardless of my mood. According to management, yes.

It was that day that I began to question my profession. I never thought someone telling me to smile would affect me as it did, but when someone asks you to do something that morally bothers you and to grin as well, it makes you wonder if you haven't sold your some malevolent force. So, I changed occupations.

I took some classes and went to work as a park ranger. I no longer had to sell, buy or process goods! I was out in nature on a regular basis, and constantly around likeminded people. My job had teaching aspects as well. I got to explain to students and campers about conservation, recycling, and other issues dear to me.

Not only did the career change decrease the stress level I felt, but it also freed up a day or two a week to volunteer at a homeless shelter in the city.   I was feeling like I was a positive influence on those around me in the community.

It was during this phase of my life that I met, Corin, whom I later married. She was camping with her collie. I advised her not to let "Mikey" eat wild berries. He had been sniffing around a bush full of poisonous ones moments earlier. She thanked me for the advise and soon became a regular around the campsite where I was posted.

Being the avid film buff that I am, I went to the movies often. Most of the staff had once worked under me, so they usually let me in for free. Since I would not think of paying the outrageously marked up concession prices, I never had to even consider working extra hours at my job to pay for a bloated lifestyle.

On one visit with Corin, I noticed an oddity. Mr. Banks was strangely absent from the backdrop of busy workers, so I asked if he was sick or something. The usher whom answered my inquiry told me that he had been fired after the chain merged with another. His dismissal had not been due to job performance, of that much I was sure. Better to fire one person earning a large salary rather than the many making chump-change. The usher, whom was always one of my favorite people to work with at the theater, went on to tell me about Nelson's other problems.

Having the excess cash that he had earned, he had started gambling. First it was lottery tickets and football games, but soon degenerated into every competitive game. Soon he was behind on his car note. Then his house payment. Credit cards had long ago been maxed out and cut up. And if that was all not enough, Nelson's house had caught fire last week.

Rumor had it that arson was suspected, and that Nelson himself was the primary suspect in the investigation. Guess he figured maybe he could collect on some property insurance or something and get out of debt. He was looking for a fresh start, a rebirth. Greed would likely be the death of him if he didn't do something. What could be more appropriate than rising up from the ashes of his house a new man with a new lifestyle? I told the usher that I hoped all worked out well for Nelson and to take care of himself. With that I was off down the hall to see my movie.

I went back to my life, content with the course I was following. I thought I had everything a guy could ever hope to attain. Then it happened. Corin gave birth to David, my little boy. He was the pride and joy of my life. Every night I found my way crib-side to pray. I just had to thank God for everything, most of all my son.

I wanted him to inherit a world of goodness and compassion, which is why I continued to faithfully volunteer my time to the shelter. Time, I had always felt was the most precious gift one could give the world, and the shelter is where I chose to give mine.

One Thursday afternoon a distraught, yet familiar soul found his way into the shelter. It was Mr. Banks. His path of self-destruction had finally delivered him to rock bottom. He had never been formally implicated in the arson, but the there was problems with the insurance claim also. He was destitute, homeless,and crying.

I felt for him. I hated to see anyone in such shape. "Sir, it will be ok. Things always seem worse than they are, and I know you will be back on your feet in no time." He wiped his eyes, and he looked up at me. Recognition crossed his face.

"I know you don't I? I do. Watts, God never thought you would see me like this!" His shame overtook him, and soon the tears started again.

"Nelson, listen to me, it is ok. We all fall on hard times." He sobbed for a minute before the tears ceased. "Ya gonna be alright, Chief? " He nodded. "I gotta go help those people coming in. Can ya smile for me?" His face formed a small unsure smile.   Still, his spirits lifted a bit.

"Smile" the word triggered memories of the night I decided to leave the theater. I owed everything to making that one decision. I continued to think about those distant days as I aided the new arrivals. Once I got them settled in, I returned to Nelson and our conversation.

"Thank you, Nelson. I just gotta say this, so please don't interrupt me...." I told him everything I told you earlier about why I grew to dislike my job so much. I told him how I got down on my knees every night and prayed next to my baby boy. And then, when I emptied myself of all I felt I needed to say, he spoke up.

"God stopped answering my prayers a long time ago, so I quit praying. Been a long time since I felt any happiness at all really, with the exception of a few minutes earlier." At that I had to add a few words.

"Nelson, prayer isn't to ask God for things you want. Prayer is to thank God for all the blessings that he has already given to you. As far as the happiness you felt a bit ago, would you like for me to tell you why you felt so good? When I told you to smile, you knew I meant it. I really wanted you to feel better. Maybe wearing a smile will let you sell someone everything, but you don't have to sell anything to wear a smile." I let him digest it all. Then, as more people entered, I said goodbye, " Well, I have to get back." He nodded, and I gave him a pat on the back.

Like looking in a mirror, you probably know a little bit more about yourself after reading the account of one of my life's great turning points. I hope so. Things get rough, but you know what? They also get better, so smile.  

By Anthony AJ Jackson
All Rights Reserved. 1-21-2000