​The Dirty Man’s Here

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For more than a year I worked as a delivery driver for an online supermarket. It was a pretty gruelling job, I got up at 3.30am on the morning shift, to deliver groceries to people in houses big and small. Lots of heavy lifting, it was a grubby existence that left me with rough, stained hands that were never quite clean and a filthy uniform that I would wash when the roster allowed it.

When you work in the service industry people often only see the job, the uniform and the status that goes along with them. We ignore the cleaner who is departing the office as we arrive in the morning, get frustrated with the rubbish collectors who are blocking the road as they take away our waste, get annoyed that our grocery delivery is nearly late. All we see is our own need, our own status, and that is priority one.

It was not uncommon to receive a complaint from a disgruntled customer when I was nearly late. Not late, you understand, but nearly late. In other words not late at all, but not early enough to satisfy customers who weren’t organised enough to book their shopping delivery a day before they would need it, and now found themselves with empty cupboards and only ten minutes until dinner time. Another common complaint was when my van nearly blocked their driveway. Or when I nearly brushed their hedge. Or when I would be parked on the road outside their house, taking my lunch break. They saw the job, and with it an opportunity to assert themselves, to vent at someone lower in the pecking order after their bad day or, perhaps even worse, they didn’t see me at all, just their own discontent. And this was translated into hostility and disrespect which, I’m sure, hurt them more than it hurt me.

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On one occasion I arrived at an address and the whole family was at the door to meet me – two young children rushed out as if stoked on sugar screaming “the dirty man’s here, the dirty man’s here.” It didn’t phase me particularly, as this was one of those jobs where you would see it all, and I’d been on the receiving end of much worse. But the sheepish expression on their parents’ faces spoke volumes.

Caught in the act of teaching their young ones to see status before people, they looked embarrassed and suddenly the dynamic switched. Had I chosen to, I could have been the one to look down on them, but I smiled and handed over the shopping, and in minutes the dirty man was on his way again.

When we talk down to the waiter we reveal the weakest side of ourselves. When we brush past the cleaner who got up way before dawn to clean our offices, we lose our humanity. And when we shout angrily at the garbage collectors, become impatient with the ticket collector, or become frustrated when our grocery shopping is nearly late, we forget that these people are the same as us. They have a story, they deserve to be seen, and they deserve our respect. Just like us, they are us.

One of the other drivers at the depot was a medical student. Another used to manage airports in South America. I heard of a highly skilled surgeon who, when war broke out in her home country was forced to flea overseas, and in her newly adopted home she could only find work as a cleaner. I also met many, many people who – for one reason or another – didn’t have the confidence or self-esteem to believe they had the potential to be anything more than they were. And I met many, many people who were quite happy with their lot, who didn’t aspire to grandeur, but found great wealth in their own modest existences.

We’ve all heard stories of famous actors who spent years working in restaurants. Famous authors who wrote their novels in cafes, while raising their child alone. Athletes, entrepreneurs, poets and artists who all spent years in humble pursuits. And there are billions more whose potential will go unrealised, unawakened, like an acorn that falls on hard ground. Look around and they – we – are everywhere.

So stop for a moment and see the people around you. Hear their stories, and imagine their hardships. Put yourself in their shoes, and rather than focusing on your needs, give a nod to theirs. Everyone has music inside them, sometimes all that we need to is quieten ours so we can listen to theirs.