Reading some blog post or other this morning, my eyes came across a name. Which triggered a vivid memory. Which triggered the jotting down of this story – because it’s about a hug never forgotten.
The year was probably 1980. I was working as a busboy in a fancy-schmancy French restaurant (Julian’s in Nashville). This intimate little converted house, which welcomed many names both obscure and famous into its five little dining rooms, was a relatively formal place – the wait staff was in black-and-white, the music was often Segovia, or perhaps Handel, and the tones were hushed as fine dining was facilitated by very attentive and restrained servers.
We did not walk out with candle-pierced cupcakes, clapping and singing Happy Birthday songs – get the picture?
The wait staff was a mixture of young-to-middle aged men, Caucasian and African-American, who perhaps didn’t view their jobs as a final-destination career, but certainly took their work far more seriously than most restaurant folks. We were trained not to get overly personal with the guests – they were there to socialize with each other, not us – so a certain professional detachment was generally practiced.
This being Nashville, and Julian’s being one of the top restaurant destinations in the city, we’d get the occasional big-name star from music, the arts, or entertainment. That livened things up (who wouldn’t want to eyeball a famous person – discreetly, of course – sitting at a table 10 feet away?) – but even more than usual, these folks needed their space, and we respected that.
Then Leo showed up. Dr. Love.
I don’t think a whole lot of us knew about Leo Buscaglia (background from Wikipedia – worth a minute to read), but he was becoming a star in his own right – and his trademark was the outward display of love. Even to strangers. I think he had a table of four, and it was clear from his animated speech and expressions that this guy was not into “subdued.” Even for an uptight and introverted New England boy like me, this was fascinatingly refreshing.
Now, generally, when people finished their meal and paid their check at Julian’s, they would receive a friendly nod and a quiet thanks from the server – all very proper and formal. Leo’s party that night was served by a fellow who was a friendly and warm enough person, but maybe a bit standoff-ish – pretty good mix for a Julian’s waiter. Leo had been bantering with him during the evening and so, there was some warmth in the air as the party got up to leave.
And Leo came up to the waiter (whose name now escapes me), arms open wide, and gave him a big hug. Which was his trademark – love openly expressed, even with strangers.
After an awkward second or two, the hug was returned, and the warmth of the circuit was complete. I was standing off at a slight distance watching this exchange, both repelled and attracted by it at the same time. Hugging at Julian’s? Hugging a virtual stranger, mano y mano? Is that allowed?
I’ve never forgotten that hug. And the more time I spent in the South (where hugs are more common than my reserved home state of CT), and the more I simply grew up and became comfortable in my own skin, the more I began to drop the uptightness and learn to hug people.
The fact is, we are physical creatures, and we often treasure the innocent and warm reassurance of a hug. In an era of political correctness, I sometimes sense (and feel myself) a certain reservation about physical contact, but if I’m going to err, I’ll mostly err on the side of showing kindness with a touch. Because warmth and love seems incomplete with a bunch of open space between us.
Leo Buscaglia is no longer in the land of the living. But he lives vividly on in my memory. And in the hugs I both give and receive, even now.
Connect with Steve Woodruff
Subscribe to Steve’s Leaves via RSS or e-mail
Read Full Post »