Monday, April 24, 2017
“Oh, I do love to see a man in a collared shirt!” I said that to The GoBot as the brood of youngsters and their grandma was still approaching me at the choo-choo train kiosk at the Arrowhead Mall.
He was five years old, short but proud. And the shirt was just a striped, knit polo – but still. “It used to be a man had to work at things, but today that collar makes you one of the ten best-dressed men at the mall.”
That’s so, alas, but so is everything else – alas. Here’s better news, instead: There are super-heroes down at the mall – sturdy oaks who might look too much like slender saplings to you, for now.
By then they had arrayed themselves neatly in front of the kiosk, stately Granny and four sweet super-heroes – all led by The GoBot, of course, who was not the biggest but who was easily the busiest.
The little dude had swagger, from his big grin to his squirm-swathed short-cropped hair. He was front and center at the kiosk, ready to make the deal for everyone – everything but the money, that is.
I nodded to him – rank has its privileges – before saying to Granny, “So, who’s riding?”
Sales monsters will note that I opened with a brutal closing question. That’s the luxury I have when the Brand Specifiers – kids like The GoBot and his mannerly siblings – come to me pre-sold. The Decision Maker – that would be Granny – is the money, which is why I put the question to her. But they would not have come so close if the money were not mine to lose.
Granny already had her cash out, anyway. To the kids she said, “You’re riding the train by yourselves. Those little cars are no good for my bones.”
I smiled at that. “I promise years of memories, but I can guarantee three days.” As I said that I leaned forward and pushed at the imagined pain in my back and Granny chuckled.
Shooting a glance to The GoBot’s older brother – IronyMan – I said, “Four kids, five bucks per kid, how much does she owe me?”
And what a striking young man! He was lounging languidly against empty space, his hands in his pants pockets, his gentle smirk underscored by his tee shirt: A silk-screened image of an old-school ‘Question Authority’ bumper sticker over which had been spray-painted the words ‘Sez who?’
He straightened up to respond to me, but before he could speak, his own older brother – The Green Eyeshade – interjected: “Four times five is twenty. Twenty dollars, that is.”
“Correct. But I’m thinking he needs the practice more than you.”
The Green Eyeshade conceded the point with a nod, which I thought was big of him. He’s tall and thin, as all three of those boys will be soon, and he has the furrowed-brow face of a lifelong nerd. Belt and suspenders? Eventually. For now, just two shirts, a long-sleeved tee-shirt with a short-sleeved tee-shirt over it. Why? Because you never can tell, that’s why.
And where the three boys were all men about business in their own way, their younger sister – call her The SnugBug – was simply sweet. She’s still a toddler, not awake as a human being yet, and her main interest was having fun with her brothers.
And they were so much a family! The same squarish face seen four different ways, the same hair in four shades of summering straw. Even their mannerisms come from their all being puppies from the same pack:
The Green Eyeshade was an only child for his first two years. His folks had lots of time for him, and he was hugely rewarded for successfully mastering information.
IronyMan saw that his brother got attention by being over-prepared, so he went into a kind of show-biz, instead.
The GoBot saw that his brothers were all about preparation and presentation, so he went into production, putting the energy of his action behind everything he did.
And The SnugBug saw that her brothers were always in a competition with each other – for everything – so she set about palliating their relationships.
If you think that configuration is rare – or random – you don’t meet enough families.
There’s more. Their ages are 3, 5, 7 and 9 – like the name of that hot-girl dress shop that closed down long before Amazon.com gutted the rest of the mall. But that distribution alone tells me that their father is not only present – rare enough – but that he’s a serious man – a husband at work at husbandry.
And where, after all, do you think new super-heroes come from?
“So,” I said. “Here’s a better question, for all four of you: What’s your grandma getting out of this?”
That stopped them in their tracks. They had all been excited to ride the train – The GoBot and The SnugBug were both bouncing in place in the spastic frenzy that is Traindancing – but nobody had a thing to say.
“Think about it. Y’all are having a day, aren’t you? Lunch at the food court? A movie, too? That stroller is loaded with bags – the Lego store, the Disney store, Build-a-Bear. And now the train. Your grandmother is going to leave a ton of money at the mall today. What’s in it for her?”
Still nobody said anything, until The SnugBug piped up: “Gamma loves me.” Just a statement of fact, serene and certain.
“But exactly! She loves you and she wants to buy you the things that she hopes will make you happy. She’s not buying things for herself, and she’s not even buying your happiness, not directly. What she’s buying is the hope that you will be made happy by her generosity. And – just so you know – she’s also buying the hope that you’ll be gracious about that generosity.”
IronyMan asked, “What’s that mean?”
I smirked. “How do you plan to pay her back?”
The Green Eyeshade got a worried look on his face as he tried to figure out how to figure out the restitution problem, but The GoBot just said: “How?”
I rolled my eyes in huge way. You can’t overdo it for kids. “By being gracious, that’s how! By saying, ‘Thank you, grandma. I had a wonderful time today. Let’s do this again soon.’”
Granny smiled at that, as I knew she would, but not even IronyMan caught the oily irony in my voice. I said, “Do you want to know the real secret to success?”
“What?” The GoBot again, quick like a Whiptail lizard.
I smiled. “Repeat business.”
“Our dad says that, too,” said IronyMan. “Or something like that.”
“Repeats and referrals,” The Green Eyeshade amended.
“What does your father do for a living?”
“He helps people!” So said The SnugBug.
“He’s a sales man.” The GoBot said it just that way, as two words.
“He’s a Super Salesman!” IronyMan said it just that way, in initial-caps.
The Green Eyeshade shrugged. “He’s a Realtor.” And, yes, he spoke the word as two-and-only-two very precise syllables.
“You help out in the office?”
“I’ll bet you’re good at it.”
He smiled at that, and his smile is shinier for being taken out less often.
The GoBot said, “On Saturday mornings we get to do door-hangers! I’m faster than anybody!”
“It’s not fair,” said IronyMan, teasing his little brother. “You can’t stop running.”
“All four of you kids are going places, I have no doubt, so let me clue you in on the way things really work.” That’s just jawbone on my part, pure Foghorn Leghorn. I get away with it from sheer audacity – and because I sell to the easily-sold.
“Every interaction is a transaction, a trade of values. The values can be money or merchandise, but they don’t have to be. As much money as your grandma is spending on you today, what she’s really giving you is her time. If you punish her by being petulant and demanding at the end of the day, she’ll find better ways to spend her time from now on. But if you work to repay the love she is showing you, it could be she’ll think of you the next time she finds herself weighed down by too much money.”
Granny smiled again, and so did The Green Eyeshade.
“You show her grace and gratitude and love and respect, because that’s what she’s showing you. You do the right thing for the right reasons because that’s the right thing to do. But the world smiles on you when you do your best, anyway.”
To The Green Eyeshade, I said: “You are most right when you are most in the right.”
To IronyMan, I offered this: “You will be best admired when your choices are most admirable.”
To The GoBot, I advised: “Work smarter, not harder. You’ll figure out the rest on your own.”
And to The SnugBug, whose super-power is the ability to melt any heart with the fleetingest flirt, I said simply this: “If you’re going to give me sweet, give it to me un-di-luted.” That made her giggle, and I knew it would. “You know what I like best about you?”
“You really know how to take a compliment!”
The three boys and Granny all chuckled at that, but The SnugBug knew I was dead serious. No one can accept a compliment with the grace and sincerity of a toddler, and I very much believe in crediting children for their immense virtues.
I smiled, saying, “You kids are great, but there’s something important missing from your lives.”
“What is it?!”
“A train ride! Let’s make up that deficit right away.”
The kids loaded into the bright red caboose and Granny took a bunch of pictures on her smartphone. I puttered around to give them time for those logistics, then I sauntered back to blow a little more smoke. On busy days, you get quick jokes and a fast ride. On slow days, you get the full Willie.
“Every interaction is a transaction. You’re here for the train ride. Your grandma is here for the memories. What do you think brings me to the table? What’s in this for me?”
“The money?” The Green Eyeshade asked himself. “This can’t pay very much.”
IronyMan knew better: “You just like showing off!”
“You get to drive the train!” You’ll never guess who said that.
The SnugBug said nothing, she just stood at the back of the caboose looking up at me, smiling and nodding, participating-without-understanding in the way that toddlers do.
With both hands I made a big flourish in the air, throwing all those daft notions away. “So much you know. I’m Willie Humanseed, and I’m helping to cultivate a forest of oaks. The world is held aloft on the strong branches of sturdy oaks trees. Other people might see you guys as saplings, but I see the oaks you are becoming. Watching kids grow into their humanity is what I get out of this job. How do you like them acorns?”
The GoBot liked that joke a lot, but still he said, “Let’s go!” That’s almost all he ever says, in one way or another.
As I settled myself into the engine, Granny stepped up to say, quietly, “Thank you for this.”
I shrugged. “Everybody’s selling the world he’s got in hopes of buying the world he wants. I’m selling what each one of those kids is buying – precision, visibility, action and just plain family fun. But I’m selling you what you’re buying, too: I’m doing my best to deliver on those hopes I talked about. If they love the train, they’ll wave at it forever and ride it when they can. But if you love the train, they’ll ride every time you bring them to the mall – and I’ll get to watch them grow up, which is you selling me what I’m buying. Everybody wins.”
I grinned and before she could respond I said: “In fifty years, those children will be the age you and I are now. We ask ourselves what kind of world we’re leaving for our kids, but what I want to know is this: What kind of world will they be able to maintain? You can wither the saplings or you can rhapsodize the oaks, but you can’t do both. I can’t make better children, but I can do what I can to make children better. I think that’s every grown-up’s job, but I know for sure it’s mine.”
Turning back from my seat in the engine to face those kids, the super-heroes of humanity’s future, I said in full voice, “My name is Loco Willie and I am a loco engineer, a man just crazy enough to think he can change things. All aboard!”