I recently saw a man in a gas station scream at a cashier. The cashier was a young girl. She made a mistake and overcharged him for gas. The man lost it. I watched the whole thing happen. He stormed out of the convenience store and sped away, leaving skid marks.
She was embarrassed.
“Oh, man,” she said. “I really screwed up.”
“No you didn’t,” said a nice man standing in line. “He did.”
Be nice. That’s what my mother always told me. And I never knew her to be wrong. This was her highest aspiration for my life. She wanted me to use a soft voice, good manners, and to treat people the way I’d treat Pope Francis.
Admittedly, I have failed her many times. There was the time I was watching the Iron Bowl at a tavern in Columbus, with friends. I was seventeen, but I managed to sneak into the joint.
There was a man at the bar in an Auburn T-shirt who kept shouting ugly things to my pals. When he tossed a glass of beer into my friend Arnold’s face things went crazy.
Arnold weighed a buck five, soaking wet, and had a stutter, he could not seem to defend himself. It took three of us to pry the man loose.
The rowdy hit me beneath the jaw so hard I bit my own tongue and said a word that is not approved by the Southern Baptist Convention™.
In the heat of the moment, I sat on the man’s chest because I didn’t know what else to do. That wasn’t very nice. My other friends joined me. Three of us sat on him like we were waiting for the three o’clock bus. My mother would’ve disowned me.
The bartender, a graduate from the University of Auburn, splashed a glass of ice water in the man’s face and shouted “You schnoz-whistle! People like you give us Auburn folks a bad name!”
“LET ME GO!” the man shouted.
“BE NICE!” shouted the bartender. “AND WE’LL LET YOU GO!”
When we let him free, the man leapt to his feet, dropped his trousers and showed us the full moon over Muscogee County.
And I’ve never forgotten the word “schnoz-whistle.”
“Be careful.” That’s something else Mama used to tell me.
My father, however, warned me never to answer this phrase with “I will.” He told me to answer these words with: “I’ll do my best.”
Because long ago my mother used to tell him to “be careful,” or “be safe” before he left for work, welding lap splices on thirty-story iron skyscrapers. And he would always answer, “I will,” then kiss her goodbye.
One day, he fell several stories and landed on his head. When he awoke he was in a hospital and couldn’t feel anything from the neck down. Doctors poked needles into his feet and into his hands.
My father said he made a deal with the Almighty. He promised to be a devout man if God would heal him.
The next day, he awoke with feeling in his body. And he would be an evangelical for the rest of his life. And it is for this reason that I still feel bad whenever I open a beer can in public.
“Be good.” This is something my grandfather would tell me. In fact, it’s something a lot of elderly men say, and I’m crazy about this term. Be good. How wonderful.
I know a man who is eighty-six. Whenever we part ways he says, “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be good at it.” Then he laughs.
“Be happy.” This one is from me to you. I descend from pessimistic people who believe in the unwritten scripture: “Blessed is he who does not expect much out of life for he will not be disappointed.” And well, that might be true, but I refuse to believe it. What I do believe is that you deserve to be happy. Which is almost unachievable in today’s pandemic-ridden world.
But it’s not impossible
“Be kind.” That’s from my aunt, who used to say, “You’re a nice-looking boy, ugly just don’t look good on you.”
Be yourself. Life is too short to be anyone else. Be generous. Be forgiving. Be open-minded. Be understanding. Be silly. Be childish. Be spontaneous. Be sincere. And be decent. It won’t make you successful; it won’t bring you fame and fortune; it won’t land on the “Today Show,” doing cooking demonstrations with Hoda. But do it anyway.
In this life you will be attacked by schnoz-whistles with inferiority complexes. I guarantee that you’lld have rough days. You’ll meet unkind folks in Columbus, with very white backsides. You’ll eventually wake up with arthritis. You’ll miss loved ones. You’ll see new wrinkles on your face and gray hairs on your head.
But you’ll also see something else when you look in the mirror. A person who you can be proud of.
At least that’s what a wise woman once told me. And I never knew her to be wrong.
Whatever you do in this world, be nice.