2020-04-29

A story from The Richest Man in Town

"You don't know what you've gotten yourself into," Marty said as I greeted him in the restaurant of a local grocery store. That's the place he picked for our first meeting.

Marty had been sitting in a booth drinking coffee when I arrived. I brought a notebook and pencil with me. This man had a story to tell and I felt a need to record it.

I had already been referring to Marty's customer-service qualities in my speeches, but other than the few moments I had seen him at Wal-Mart, I didn't know anything about him. Why was he so different than any other cashier I had ever met? I had no intention of writing a talk about his life, much less a book. I just wanted to know why he was so happy-and what I could learn from him.

After buying a cup of coffee I sat down with him. Idle conversation filled those next few minutes until I asked, "Are you married?"

Marty's eyes lit up. "I got married to the most beautiful girl in the world-and she still is. Her name is Mickey and you need to meet her." I told him I would like to do that.

"Kids?" I asked.

"Four," he said, "three boys and a girl."

I opened my notebook and asked Marty if it was okay to write down his answers to my questions. Marty looked at the notebook and grinned. "You want to write stuff about me?"

It was obvious he hadn't been interviewed before. I thought I'd start with some easy questions.

"When were you born?"

"August 12, 1926. I'll be seventy-four years old this August. It's hard to believe."

"So you had to go through the Great Depression. What was that like?" I asked.

He paused for a moment, looked at his hands circling the coffee cup, and let his mind take a trip back in time. "We just lived life from day to day. My family was very hard-up at that time and I just figured everyone else was in the same boat. Most of them were."

Marty's mother stayed at home to take care of him and his brother and two sisters. His father was a common laborer, moving from one job to the next, often taking the family from town to town. In one place he worked on a turkey farm, in another he tended bar. Maybe it was the times, mixed with his lack of any particular skill.

"Growing up in the thirties and forties, people cared about people," Marty said. "We helped each other out without giving it a second thought. I suppose that's carried over to today."

As a young boy Marty watched his father pour drinks at a bar. "I remember a lot of men who worked hard in the stone quarry and when they got their paychecks they would go to a beer parlor. They would squander their money while their family was at home with very little to eat. I guess that is one of the reasons why I never drank."

After taking a sip of coffee, Marty continued. "We were dirt poor. Most days I ate a piece of bread smeared with lard and sprinkled with some salt and pepper on it. I don't ever remember eating red meat during the entire thirties. I never got to go to a restaurant until I was ten years old."

He started to laugh. "Have you ever had fried corn meal mush?" I told him I had never heard of it. "I'll fix it for you sometime. I still eat it because I kind of like it," he said, still laughing. I was smiling, too, as he remembered those years.

"I'll tell you how bad it got," Marty told me. "When I was eight years old I had a pet chicken. She would follow me around like it was a dog. Usually you can't pick up a chicken and hold it, but that one you could. Things got so bad we were forced to eat the poor thing. I cried, but I had to eat. That's the way it was."

My smile quickly faded. Now I felt bad for smiling. These could be sad memories for Marty. Yet, he continued to share them with me.

"When I was a kid I went to the dump ground and found the inner tube of an old tire. I made myself a slingshot. I got good with that slingshot and, once in a while, I got a rabbit."

Marty was silent for a time, then tears ran from his eyes. In a quiet voice he said, "You know, one of the greatest memories I have of my mother was the day I walked through the front door holding two rabbits. My mother sat at the kitchen table and cried. She couldn't believe we had two rabbits to eat." His voice trailed off. We said nothing for a few minutes, just drank coffee and wiped away tears.

Finally, Marty said, "My problem is that I'm a softy. I got that from my mother. Can we talk about something else?"

At that point I scrambled for something to ask. The first six questions I had written on my list dealt with family matters. It was obvious I needed to change directions.

"Why do you shake hands with the customers?" I asked.

The question revived him. "It happened by accident," Marty replied. "A couple of years ago, when I was first hired as a greeter at the store, four college students walked in. I shook their hands. One guy walked a few steps, turned around and said, 'I like that!' So I've been doing it ever since.

"I shake hands with two hundred and twenty people a day. Some people want a hug. There was one lady who wanted a kiss." He laughed. "Most people seem to like it. I know some don't. Germs, you know. There was one guy who wouldn't shake my hand because, he said, 'I'm a Quaker, not a shaker.' I'm still trying to figure that one out."

He had given a lot of thought to the technique behind that handshake. "You have to look people dead in the eye when you shake their hand. That's the only way to go. I'm trying to show them that I appreciate them," he said.

The shaking of hands surprised the newcomers to the store. Most of the locals expected it, and liked it, but for the uninitiated, it was a whole new experience.

"Oh, let me tell you a story," Marty said. "A year ago a woman came through my line and I stuck out my hand. She jumped back. She acted like I had a gun or something. I said to her, 'Hasn't anyone ever shook your hand before?' The lady said, 'I'm from South Carolina. There's a store in South Carolina where they shake hands all the time.'

"I yelled, 'Hooray for South Carolina!' and she walked out the door. Five minutes later she was back in my line, buying nothing. I said, 'Can I help you?' She touched my arm and said, 'I lied to you. I got out in the parking lot and started thinking about it. There's no store in South Carolina where they shake hands. You're the first one. I needed to come back in here and apologize for lying. Will you accept my apology?'"

Marty whacked his hand on the table and laughed. "Do you believe that?" he asked.

I grinned and thought to myself, "Marty got that woman to find religion in the parking lot of Wal-Mart."

At that point a restaurant worker came by with a mop and a pail filled with water. It was a signal our conversation needed to come to an end. I told Marty I would like to talk to him again. "That would be great," he replied. "Why don't you come to my house next Tuesday night? You can meet Mickey."

"Where do you live?"

"Number Fifty-seven, Normandy Village," he said. I had to think for a moment before I remembered that Normandy Village was a trailer park. I had driven by there many times.

"Oh," I said, "you live in a trailer?"

Marty looked at me and with a quiet sense of pride said, "I own a double-wide."

We shook hands and said goodbye. I left the store with more questions than I had when I walked in. The main one was simple: Why was he so happy?

I had known a lot of people who owned big cars, earned big paychecks, lived in big houses and had seemingly perfect family lives. Yet they were miserable. This guy was still working into his seventies, came through some tough times and didn't seem to have a lot of material things. He was the happy one.

I was hoping to find my answers in a trailer park.

"You have to look people dead in the eye when you shake their hand."

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