I was new to the neighborhood. The first time I stopped into the cozy Greek diner a few blocks away from my new apartment, a man in a Hawaiian Shirt greeted me enthusiastically. We chatted over my “to go” order. Yes, I was new to the area. No, I have never been in his restaurant before. As he considered my order, he instructed me that I must have the fries. Considering the caloric indulgence, I declined. “Ah, you’ll change your mind when you taste them!,” he said confidently as he handed me a sample. They were decadent. Plump, golden potato slices, perfectly brown, treated with a splash of vinegar and sprinkled with oregano and salt. My mouth still waters when I think of them. I declared them to be delicious yet still declined. “Next time,” he ordered. “Get the fries the next time.”
I became a regular at Cross Rhodes, the little neighborhood diner. Soon I learned that the happy man in the Hawaiian shirt that greeted me (and every customer) as a long lost friend was named Jeffery. He was the owner. We regularly repeated our little ritual. He’d ask, “Going to have the fries today, Susan?” I’d decline, passing up the luxury every time.
One harried Christmas season almost twenty years ago, I rushed into Cross Rhodes in a blur of after work, after shopping, after shipping frenzy but before rushing home to pack for my holiday trip. Cranky and distracted, I delivered my regular “to go” order. In no mood for our usual back and forth banter; I just took my order and left. I wonder if I missed the twinkle in his eye.
I entered my apartment preoccupied and overwhelmed. There was no Christmas season this year. In the middle of a reorganization at work, I had just a few days off with family, and a few work related tasks during that visit. Big decisions awaited my return; the anxiety and pressure weighed on me. I was lost in my gloom until I lifted the lid on my food. Next to my regular order, there they were. A mound of hot, crisp, Greek fries. A handwritten note on my receipt read “Merry Christmas!” As I savored every last bite, I thought about the gestures of kindness that made it feel like Christmas. I missed so many in my frenzy.
This year, my traditional Christmas Eve “to go” order from Cross Rhodes of a Greek veggie sandwich with fries will be especially poignant. Jeffrey Russell died this year, suddenly and too young as a result of a terrible fall. Even though he won’t greet me in his Hawaiian shirt, the lessons he left me are present. We touch so many people, ever so briefly. Every encounter is an opportunity to spread joy. You never know who carries a secret burden that might be lifted even a tiny bit by a small, sincere gesture. And, our problems are often difficult but not impossible to resolve. Step back, get perspective and give yourself a break. Have the fries.