“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
— Letter to the Hebrews, 13:2
The fast food restaurant has always been around, I suppose, with its franchises and logo and color scheme and ads. It never dawned on me to notice, or to walk in. Well, until last week.
I needed a public rest room in the middle of the city. Surprise! Public rest rooms aren’t really around any more. And this was after 5:00 on Veterans’ Day, so a ten-block round trip expedition determined that even the public library was closed. Hm. I hiked past chic shoe and jewelry shops, wondering what to do. I could walk a mile over to the room where I was staying, and then a mile back. But I was already running late in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was getting dark and cold.
(Later, a wise local gave me a tip: just stroll casually in to the rest room at any fine hotel! But at the time that didn’t dawn on me.) Instead, I spotted the fast food restaurant and walked in, and up to the hard-working Counter Associate.
“Hello,” I greeted him. “Can I just, like, buy a $5 gift card and go use the rest room?”
“Excuse me please?” the young man asked, with just a hint of lilt in his intonation. Courteous, attentive, pleasant looking. Bright intelligent eyes clicking through my enigmatic question.
No wonder. I realized to my chagrin that my question did not in fact make intuitive logical sense. (The lady wants a gift card for the rest room? Is our bathroom full of GIFTS?)
I tried again. “I would like to use your rest room. But I do not need to actually buy anything. So may I just buy a gift card instead?” It’s understandable that businesses spend time and money cleaning their premises; they need to save the rest rooms for people who are actually customers. Besides, a gift card would be useful for any of the many people outside, sitting on the street, asking for pocket change.
The young man made a snap decision. At a low discreet angle he showed me a laminated card with four digits, then pointed upward and over. “Code, for upstairs,” he said. Lilt of intonation again.
I made a snap decision too, about his intonation. Was that Slavic? Maybe. Was it polite to ask? Maybe not. This may have been wrong on my part, it may have been tactless even, but I switched to Russian. “Góspodi Vas Blagosloví, Lord Bless You,” I said, clasping my hands, and ran upstairs.
Soon I was back downstairs. Before heading out the door I caught the young man’s eye over the waiting line of customers, and waved goodbye.
He motioned me to stop. With a quick word to his co-workers he sped through the restaurant to catch up with me.
“Please, about the code,” he apologized, in clear cultured very polite Russian. “We are not trying to make things difficult for anybody. It is just that there have been incidents with people using the bathroom. People who have serious difficulties.”
“Vsio poniátno, totally understandable,” I said, thanking him for his help.
“Now. Look,” he said quietly. “What can I bring you? Coffee? Some food?”
“What?? Oh! Why — no, I’m fine. Honestly. That was all I needed.”
“Seriously,” he assured me. “It’s really all right — I’ll pay; it’s my treat. Anything you like! Please. Come; sit down, have a hot meal.”
At first I felt mortified for troubling him. But mostly I was profoundly touched. What royal hospitality, from a hard-working person to a total stranger!
That was a long day, by then. All-night plane flight, jet lag, a plumbing overflow that required all my cleverness to set right in the house where I was staying, eight hours of walking, running four hours late for a dinner invitation in the suburbs, a cell phone that had just died (containing the directions I needed, to find the friends in said suburbs), an hour spent looking for a rest room, a head cold coming on, temperature falling fast, and now standing here in my favorite travel clothes — comfy hem-frayed hoody sweatshirt, and jumbo khaki duffle bag from the Army Navy surplus store that closed in 1984.
No wonder this attentive tactful young man thought that the older lady might be a little down on her luck but was too proud to admit it!
(Next day I telephoned Corporate with the store number and address, to name and praise their young colleague. I post-mailed them a thank you letter too, for his personnel file. True, for his sake I changed the story a bit, telling them only that I went in asking for directions, and that he took me aside to make sure that this slightly distraught traveler was okay and didn’t need him to summon further help. I added that I work in medical education, and that this man’s vigilance, respectful behavior, and quick thinking were just the qualities taught by our faculty to future health care providers. And after a quick look through their company story and food philosophy, I promised them that on my next trip in the spring I’ll go back to that restaurant and will actually buy myself dinner.)
But meanwhile, feeling deeply blessed by this astonishing kindness, I thanked the young man profusely, took a good look at the name on his badge, excused myself, and galloped off toward the subway.
Then, just before running in to the station, I suddenly remembered: in my pocket was a little souvenir from home, a keepsake for my hosts in the suburbs. What good luck!
I ran back to the fast food restaurant.
My benefactor was still at the counter, poetry in motion, whipping out beverages and burgers.
I waited in line for my turn.
“Vot moi spútnik, Here is my traveling companion,” I explained. “And now, it can travel with you.” I slipped him the little gift face down, then backed off into the crowd.
He picked up the keepsake and turned it over, and blinked with wide eyes.
It was the Russian Orthodox icon of the Trinity, by Andrey Rublëv. It was sealed with the label Spasí i Sokhraní, Save and Protect, and a Trinity prayer in Slavonic. The icon portrays the three strangers in Genesis 18, who visited Patriarch Abraham. Abraham welcomed them in, not knowing he was really entertaining three angels.
That little icon found the right home. It’s a symbol of hospitality at its purest (which just happens to be a classically Russian national virtue): an attentive look, a kind word. Side order of fries, offered from a generous heart.