I was cleaning out the attic the other day and ran across an old traffic sign. It belonged to a neighbor of ours, now long gone. But the memory it stirred in me resonated like it was yesterday.
Jeff was tall and rail thin. I don’t think I ever saw him properly dressed, and I doubt he owned a razor. The only hair product he ever used was a rubber band. He was constantly repairing his bicycle, or riding it, or talking with friends (who looked and dressed much like he did) about it. He also owned several surfboards which seemed like permanent accessories in the back of his rusting Jeep.
As far as I could tell, he and his girlfriend Petra had no jobs, came and went at all hours, and just weren’t the kind of people I’d socialize with. I quickly dismissed my wife’s suggestion that we strike up a conversation the next time we saw them.
So, for the next year or so, we kept our distance with a civil but distant wave and smile. One day, I stepped outside and found Petra sitting on her front steps, devastated. She was crying, and from the look of her eyes, had been for some time.
I instantly walked over and asked her what was wrong. She sniffled that Jeff had crashed his airplane and was dead. I waved my wife over, and for the next hour, we sat and comforted a neighbor who’d been a stranger for too long. And some part of a feeling punched me in the gut as it included the words, “too late.”
Jeff, I learned that day, was not the pot-smoking or drug-dealing hippie I thought he was. He had two aerospace patents that had made him financially independent (and then some) at a very young age. He had an engineering degree. He was a licensed pilot. He helped his friends, who were professional cyclists, make refinements to their bicycles in order to improve speed and functionality. They offered him consulting gigs and money in exchange for his expertise. He refused. He just loved helping.
He was a vegetarian and a health nut who didn’t use alcohol or drugs, ate organic, and exercised every day. He read voraciously, often late into the night, and discussed Voltaire and Rousseau with his cycle buddies from France. (Petra was studying to be a nurse and working part time, odd hours at an assisted living facility, which explained her odd hours.)
Jeff and I might have had some good conversations had I not been such a narrow-minded snob. I had judged him and Petra unfairly and harshly. I should not have judged them at all.
I keep that in mind now, constantly, and it has served me well. Appearances are deceiving. People are surprising, often in wonderful ways. I dress like I dress and I hold the values that I hold. Just because someone doesn’t dress like I do doesn’t mean that don’t share the values that I do. It doesn’t mean we don’t have important, tremendously human, things in common. It doesn’t mean I can’t be polite or open-minded.
Petra moved from the neighborhood shortly after the funeral. She and my wife shared a tearful hug goodbye, and I simply said, “I’m so sorry.” She probably had no idea how many different ways I meant it.
Now, whenever I’m ready to cast a dismissive glance at someone I’m standing in line with at the coffee shop, or walking past on the street, I back it up a notch.
I don’t know their story. I don’t know their dreams. I don’t know anything, so I can’t judge.