In the Shoes of Others

In any business serving the public, over time you accumulate regulars, people who for some reason glom onto you and come back again and again. Regulars form the backbone of a sustainable business, and in the long run they can make or break you. Most you are happy to see. After all, they wouldn’t keep coming back if there hadn’t been some kind of connection. But not every regular is welcome. Every now and again you have one that elicits not a smile of appreciation when you see him coming, but rather a groan of dread.

One long-term customer of mine–I’ll call him Jay–was of this type. His MO was always the same. Invariably, Jay would show up just before closing time, often on a Friday, always with some urgent, life or death matter that needed to be straightened out RIGHT NOW or he would be dead in the water. Usually it was some self-inflicted mess that could easily have been avoided had he simply exercised good sense. Half pleading, half-demanding, Jay would beseech you to please, please help him out just this one time. I know you’re wanting to leave right now but please, I beg of you. That sort of thing. Every time, Jay worked you hard, played on your sympathies, wore you down until finally you gave in just to get rid of him, hoping it wouldn’t take too long.

Balding, somewhere north of seventy if I had to guess, painfully thin and stooped, slow of speech and movement, with a grating whiny voice and a “why me” sad-sack demeanor, Jay was not what you would call a magnetic personality. He reeked of stale cigarette smoke, had a bad habit of wanting to look over your shoulder as you worked, was impossibly long-winded, and had no notion whatsoever of personal space, often squeezing so close to you that you had to pull away. In short, Jay was quite possibly the most irritating human, ever.

If you spent even a few minutes around Jay, you came to realize that he was the sort of guy who was never more than a step or two ahead of disaster. He wore rumpled, worn-out clothes that were decades out of style. He drove an old beater car that  looked like it couldn’t possibly pass inspection. Three years plus after stepping off the plane in Austin, he still hadn’t managed to find a place to live, and was squatting in a hotel room, one of those extended-stay “executive” numbers you find lining the freeways of any American city. Jay made his living as a writer, working primarily for European technology publications, and operated on their merciless schedule, some eight or nine hours ahead of local time. And local quitting time happened to be right about when his workday was just getting started. It was a tenuous life Jay had, and it kept him perpetually off-balance and maximally stressed. He exuded a kind of low-level panic.

Sure enough, one evening, right as I am preparing to leave, Jay shows up. He has, as it turns out, written me a couple of notes warning of his intention to do so, but I ignored them. And so he interprets my silence as assent. Following standard protocol Jay pleads direst necessity. Usually it’s so much exaggeration, but this time, for once, he is speaking the truth. As it turns out, Jay has been struck by the Cryptowall virus, a particularly nasty digital exploit spread by elements of the Russian Mafia.

Cryptowall is the sort of next-generation threat many of us in the business had worriedly anticipated for years. It is a cleverly designed, cruelly efficient agent of pure extortion.  Cryptowall usually arrives as an attachment to a seemingly authentic email. Opening the attachment releases the malware. Upon infection, the virus stealthily encrypts every personal file on the target computer and any attached storage devices. It takes its time, never working so hard as to interfere with normal operation and therefore risk arousing your suspicions. Once the process is complete, the malware blocks access to the encrypted files, and displays a message informing you of the situation and instructing you how to get your data back. To do so, you must pay a certain sum, usually around $500, in Bitcoins, via an anonymous weblink.

Once you are infected the only truly safe approach is to wipe the affected computer and start over, rebuilding from backups. I advise Jay of this, but it falls on deaf ears. He is desperate to salvage the situation but unwilling to take the necessary hard steps. Even though I am trying to help him out, he fights me every step of the way. My patience is wearing pretty thin.

In some ways I am ill-suited to be in this line of work. Though fundamentally a sociable, kind, and engaging person, I have a sizable hot-tempered, impatient streak that asserts itself more often than I would like. There are a number of triggers and Jay has managed to find nearly all of them. With surgical precision, probably without ever meaning to, he aggressively pushes my buttons until I am absolutely seething.

It doesn’t help that Jay apologizes continually and profusely. There is an unhealthy, self-loathing quality to his endless excuse-making that infuriates me, and I find myself wanting to shake some sense into the guy. Man up, already! I want to shout.

This uncomfortable sort of situation happens to me perhaps more than most people because, truth be told, I allow it. In many ways I am a soft touch, and my default mode is to be lenient and forgiving with people. Until, that is, they give me good reason not to be. At which point I can morph with startling suddenness into a complete SOB. Fortunately, this only happens when people repeatedly take undue advantage. Unfortunately people do exactly that with distressing frequency. They mistake my kindness for weakness and end up having to be rather roughly corrected. Jay seems to be falling into that category, and as such is very much in danger of meeting my steely, rather unpleasant alter ego.

I am on the verge of throwing Jay out of my office, and he knows it and is terrified at the prospect because he has nowhere else to turn. His eyes dart wildly back and forth, as though searching for something, anything, that will stay the execution. He is desperation personified. And then I notice his expression shift from fear to resignation. His whole body sags under the weight of yet another failure. He has given up.

And then it hits me, a classic moment of clarity: But for blind good fortune, I could be this man. In a flash, all my irritation, all my anger toward Jay simply vanish, and I see him in a new light. He’s not trying to get under my skin; he just doesn’t know any better. And he’s not a bad sort; he’s just in a bad spot and could really, really use a break right about now. How would I feel were I in his shoes?

It clearly isn’t easy being Jay. He is a bright guy with some useful skills, but he just doesn’t have the juice anymore. He probably never did. He is, in anthropological terms, a classic low-status male, who on his very best day doesn’t even rise to Beta rank. And who, because of this pitiless reality, has had to eat shit each and every single day of his life. He shambles though life wearing a Kick Me sign that can never be removed, a ready-made doormat for every overbearing prick who happens to cross his path. No one in their right mind would ever want to trade places with Jay. He’s in terrible shape. He has a miserable life. And at this point there’s absolutely no way out. Correction, there is exactly one way out.

Because he is unwilling or unable to fight back, Jay, a fundamentally decent guy, has had to accept a life of unending petty cruelties. And enduring a lifetime of casual disrespect and routine mistreatment at the hands of his social superiors–meaning pretty much everyone else–has turned Jay into a twitchy, vacillating, dyspeptic, dysfunctional, self-hating mess.

I realize that my life, which isn’t exactly a cakewalk, is an Elysian delight in comparison to Jay’s. Even though he is my senior by fifteen or twenty years, I have the sudden urge to take this poor guy under my wing, cut him some slack, and give him a little constructive feedback.

There is a saying we’ve all heard that goes something like this: Don’t judge another until you’ve walked in their shoes. I can only do this in my imagination but it is quite enough. And so I make a silent promise to Jay. I will not be like the others. From here on out, I will treat you fairly and with respect. I will be more empathetic, I will bring my quick temper under control, and I will exercise patience. I will do this because it is the right thing to do, because it is the way I would wish to be treated, and because: There, but for the grace of God, go I.

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One Comment

  1. This is why you will suceed in life. Success does not mean winning the lottery or gliding but being able to look in the mirror and be pleased with what you see. Yes sometimes we get taken advantage of but if it happens because we were trying to do the right thing we need to recognize that and not beat ourselves up for “having the wool pulled over our eyes”. I really enjoyed your story. Thank you.

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