“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, part of the random background of life: logo, mascot, color scheme, ads. It never dawned on me to walk in to one or eat the food. Until last week.
In a city far away, I needed a rest room. Surprise! Rest rooms have gone the way of the Pullman car; good luck finding one. 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 shops, wondering what to do. I could return to the room where I was staying, but that was a mile out of the way. (Later, a wise local gave me a tip: just stroll casually in to the rest room at any fine hotel.)
Meanwhile, I spotted the fast food restaurant and walked in.
“Hello,” I greeted the hard working counter associate. “Can I just, like, buy a $5 gift card and go use the rest room?”
“Excuse me please?” the young man asked. Courteous, pleasant looking, speaking with just a lilt of an accent; bright intelligent eyes clicking through my slightly enigmatic question.
“I’d like to use your rest room,” I explained, “but there’s nothing that I need to buy. So may I just get a gift card instead?” A gift card was likely to come in handy to one of the many people out on the street, asking for pocket change.
At a low discreet angle, the young man held up a laminated card with four digits. “Code,” he said. “Upstairs on the right.”
Aha, that accent sounded Russian. “Góspodi Vas Blagosloví, Lord Bless You,” I said, clasping my hands, and headed upstairs.
Within minutes 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 very clear well-spoken Russian. “We’re not trying to make things difficult for anybody. It’s just that we’ve had serious trouble with people using the bathroom. People who have serious problems.”
“Vsio poniátno, totally understandable,” I said, thanking him for his help.
“Listen,” he said quietly. “What can I bring you? Coffee? Some food?”
“What? Oh! Why no, I’m fine. That’s all I needed.”
“Seriously,” he assured me. “It’s really all right — this is my treat. I’ll take care of it. Anything you like. Please. Come; sit down, have a hot meal.”
An all-night plane flight, jet lag, a whole day of walking, temperature falling fast, a plumbing incident that required all my germinal skill in the house where I was staying, a head cold coming on, running four hours late for a dinner invitation in the suburbs, and a cell phone that had just breathed its last (containing the directions I needed, to find the friends in said suburbs), getting lost en route, the rest room detour, standing there in my comfy hem-frayed hoody sweatshirt, gripping my jumbo khaki duffle bag from the Army Navy surplus store that closed in 1984 — I must have looked frazzled to the last nerve. No wonder this attentive young man concluded that I was a little down on my luck but too proud to admit it!
Thanking him for his concerned and caring assurances I finally excused myself (making sure to first read the name on his badge) and galloped off toward the subway.
Later I contacted Corporate with the store number and address, to name and praise their young colleague. I mailed them a thank you letter too for his personnel file. I doctored 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 older lady 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 sensibility were just the qualities taught by our faculty to future health care providers. I also promised them that on my next trip there in spring, I’d go back to that restaurant and actually purchase a meal.
But before catching that subway, I suddenly remembered a little souvenir I’d brought from home for my hosts in the suburbs. What good luck — the gift was right in my duffle bag!
I ran back into the fast food restaurant.
My benefactor was poetry in motion, whipping out burgers and fries.
I waited my turn until I was first in his line.
“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 gift 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, thriving in small things: a second look, a kind word. Side order of fries, offered with a generous heart.