Why Is This Man Laughing?

My friend Walter had an interview with a recruiter the other day about a very good job with a big company that’s looking to expand overseas. Walter has been in senior management with a couple of U.S. corporations, and he’s got a nice house in the suburbs and a lot of toys to show for it.

But he lost his job a year ago, and when the headhunter asked Walter what he’d been doing lately, he said “Working at Starbucks.”

The recruiter blanched. When they tell you in the HR business that it’s easier to find a job if you already have one, they don’t mean making push-button lattes and wiping down sticky tables.

But that’s the economic reality for a lot of people in the wake of what TIME magazine called “the decade from hell.” There are a lot of people like Walter whose chances of landing a job commensurate with the one they had is compromised not only by economic conditions, but also by their age. Walter is 57, an age at which there seems to be hidden code written into the application process that causes your resume to wind up in the circular file.

In other words, this is the kind of situation that causes folks to wake up in the middle of the night trembling with fear, and I’d be surprised if Walter wasn’t one of them.

The party’s over

But the cool thing about Walter, is that after he told the recruiter he was working at Starbucks, he laughed. Not because it wasn’t true, but because…well, what the hell. When you’ve been through what Walter’s been through, why not? Consider:

• He had to borrow money from his father to pay the mortgage and other bills.

• The financial stress has contributed to tension and complications at home.

• He installed hardwood floors and re-tiled two bathrooms, not for the heck of it, but so his house would show better. The house is for sale, and the irony is that the improvements have deepened his attachment to the place.

• The pool table, outboard motor, cartop carrier and other toys are gone, sold on Craigslist. The new floor in the game room is especially noticable because the room is empty.

A new man

So the party at Walter’s place is over, and yet after having a beer with him the other night I thought about how much he has changed, and how much I admire him. Coming to terms with his reality — being more honest with himself and more open with others — have done wonders. That pale, haggard look of the past has been replaced by a ruddy glow.

“Working at Starbucks” is code to the professional class for the ultimate comedown; it’s the materialist version of hitting bottom. And yet when Walter talks about life as a barista, he grins like a kid.

He is the oldest employee by 25 years or more, but he likes his co-workers and they like him. They kid with him, confide in him and respect him for taking on the jobs, like cleaning and sweeping up, that they dislike.

And when a drop-dead gorgeous woman stepped to the counter the other day and Walter’s jaw fell open, they teased him about it unmercifully.

“Hey,” he told them, “I may be old, but I’m not dead!”

A rich vein

What I love about Walter’s story is that in humility he found grace. That in doing something menial and seemingly beneath him, he has opened himself up to authenticity and the dignity of truth.

There is a rich vein in spiritual traditions concerning humility and service. Jesus of Nazareth washed the feet of his disciples. Socrates, the wise man in Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” was a gas station attendant. Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s novel, “Siddhartha,” forsakes his wealthy upbringing to become a wandering monk and eventually a ferryman.

Walter isn’t ready for canonization, but he is a wonderful example for anyone whose life has been turned upside down. We can feel sorry for ourselves and play the victim, or we can dust ourselves off and get on with it. From the look on Walter’s face, it might even be fun.

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