By Michael Gates Gill
This is the true, surprising story of an old white man who was kicked out of the top of the American Establishment, by chance met a young African-American woman from a completely different background, and came to learn what is important in life. He was born into privilege on the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan, she into poverty in the projects in Brooklyn. He once had a high-powered advertising job and now had nothing; she came from the streets and now had succeeded—so much so that she was able to offer a stranger a chance to save himself.
This is my story. And like all surprising stories, it starts with an accident. I should not have been anywhere near the location of that transforming experience. But on that particular rainy day in March I could not resist the urge to go back in time and visit my childhood home.
As I gazed at that four-storey brownstone where I had grown up I thought how far I had fallen.
Turning from the comforts of the past I looked for some comfort in a latte at a new Starbucks store on the corner. In my depressed state I did not notice the sign in front reading: “Hiring Open House.”
I ordered my latte and made my way over to a small table.
“Would you like a job?”
I was startled out of my reverie. The speaker sat at the table right next to mine, shuffling some papers with professional dispatch. She was an attractive African-American woman wearing a Starbucks uniform.
I was struck numb.
Was I that transparent?
Could she see that I was at 63 too old for my former career and all my efforts to find a job after being fired without warning one morning many years ago I not been able to make a living? Could she tell that I was now virtually broke and despite my former career as a creative director at J. Walter Thompson I was desperate for work?
For one of the few times in my life I could not think of a polite lie or any answer but the truth.
“Yes,” I said without thinking, “I would like a job.”
Now that I had given her such a positive response, it obviously surprised her.
She eyed me skeptically.
“Would you be willing to work for me?”
I could not miss the challenge of her question. Would I, an old white man, be willing to work for a young black woman?
She later confided to me that her mother had died of a drug overdose and she had been sent as a young girl to live with her angry, bitter aunt who had repeatedly told her as she was growing up: “White folks are the enemy.”
She was not willing to go an inch further until she was sure I would not give her any trouble.
“I would love to work for you,” I said, and meant every word. Somehow, without thinking. I answered from my heart, and from my need to create a new chapter in my life,
She handed me a paper.
“Here is the application from.”
I had never had to fill out a job application before. After Yale a friend from Skull & Bones had recommended me to J. Walter Thompson and the Yale man who owned the company had hired me immediately.
But now I knew I needed her help.
“Please help fill this out,” I said.
Something about my manner must have touched her heart. She reached out her hand.
“My name is Crystal,” she said.
I shook it.
“My name is Mike.”
“Okay Mike,” Crystal said, “This isn’t that hard.
She helped me fill out the application, sitting side by side.
She also handed me a thick brochure.
“Look through this and you will see all the health benefits.”
Her words truck a responsive chord with me. Just a week before I had gone for what was described as a “routine physical” which led to a “routine” MRI, in which it was discovered that I had a brain tumor.
The brain surgeon I saw after the MRI exam wanted to operate immediately. I was able to stammer out that I had no health insurance. Like many American I had let it lapse after I left corporate life. The surgeon agrees to wait, but I realized that I was so vulnerable and that my life might be over.
“How many kids do you have?” Crystal was paused with a pencil above the job application form.
“You’ve been busy,” she said, “Well your five kids can all be covered for just one small deduction.”
I felt a great wave of relief. After being fired, I had started an affair that had created another child outside my marriage that led to a divorce. And feeling such a failure, I was grateful to hear that maybe somehow Starbucks insurance could help my kids. Suddenly Crystal’s job offer seemed more important than ever.
“Okay, Mike,” Crystal, said, rising. The interview was clearly over.
She must have sense the deep gratitude behind my everyday words.
Bu then she got serious again.
“This job is not easy.”
“I know. But I will work hard for you. I promise.”
‘It’s not just serving coffee,” she said, making sure of me, “You also have to clean floors, take out garbage, clean toilets.”
“I get it,’ I said.
“No, I don’t think you do,” Crystal said, “But you will learn.”
And over the next months and years I have learned.
And I have also realized that his so-called “low status” job simply serving others of every background, race, gender and age has made me happier than I have ever been.
Even now as I enter my tenth year of working at Starbucks, that inner sense of newfound happiness is for me the biggest surprise in this surprising story.