April 2008 Archives

"What Kind of Work do You Do?"

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He sits near the "Order Here" sign, nursing his cup of coffee. His smile is more like a perpetual grimace, wrinkling the face that lives behind industrial-strength glasses, between wiry grey hair and a beard that looks like an explosion in a mattress factory. Walking over to refill his cup, his back is badly hunched, and he walks with a springy, lurching kind of gait.

Customers really can't avoid him as they approach the counter to place their orders:

"Cinnamon sugar, toasted, with blueberry. Small coffee." 

"Asiago, toasted with plain cream cheese."

He's a familiar face and some of the regulars smile and greet him. Others, especially the strangers who stop in the bagel shop on the way from their hotels to the convention center, don't know what to make of him. Like me, when I first met him, they probably think he's a member of the fraternity of homeless people that frequent our downtown streets.

He never asks for money but he scans the faces, and spotting a friendly one, he always asks the same question,

"What kind of work do you do?".

It's a fascinating study in human behavior to watch how people respond to Howard's question. Some are uncomfortable, and ignore him, intently studying the menu on the wall as if they don't get the same thing every day - "Powerbagel, double-toasted, with peanut butter". But most will respond,

"I'm in sales."

"I own a small business.",

And so on. Like any good interviewer, Howard always has a follow-up question:

"But what do you sell?"

"What kind of small business?".

"Cool", he always says, after he gets his answer. And that's the end of the conversation.

I've answered this question at least a dozen times in the two years that I've been coming here,

"Good morning sir."

"Good morning, Howard."

"Sir?"

"Yes, Howard?"

"What kind of work do you do?"

"I work with computers, Howard."

"What do you do with computers?"

"I put maps on the internet and help people with driving directions."

"Cool."

I'll never forget the first time I met Howard. I thought he was going to ask for money and, after the follow-up question, was prepared to brush him off and pull the I-have-to-study-the-menu trick, when he suddenly released me from the conversation with his totally relaxed, almost child-like, "Cool".

The store manager is kind to Howard. One day I asked her about him. She told me that he's not homeless, but lives in a nearby home for mentally handicapped people. He comes in every day at the same time, spends a couple of hours, then moves on. He has a couple of additional questions for me today:

"Are things good for you sir?"

I'm overwhelmed by the fact that, compared to Howard, my life is filled with material wealth and relational richness that he'll never know.

"Yes, Howard, things are very, very good for me. How about you? Are things good for you?"

"Well... that's a hard one to answer."

"Some days are better than others, huh?"

"Well... not really. They're all just about the same."

This morning I'm sitting a little closer to him than usual. Close enough to see that someone has written "F__k Me" on the toe of his tattered tennis shoe. Now I am angry. And strangely compelled to pull out my laptop and tell you about Howard before I turn my attention to the duties of the day.

Today those duties include dealing with the challenges of systems, strategy, operations, budgets, politics, and people. But today as I leave the bagel shop with my backpack I'll have Howard to thank for helping me keep things in perspective.

Life is challenging. But everything's cool.

Captain Jeff

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My brother Jeff, fishing near his home in the Abaco Islands, Bahamas.


Launch Time

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This photo was taken at 3-4am during a recent software launch at work. I'm fortunate to work with an amazing group of technologists.


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This page is an archive of entries from April 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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