This past Friday I worked late at the business school. There wasn’t a soul in the building, which is how I like it, since I can’t concentrate with noise around me. Usually, students congregate in the area just outside my office, so I have taken to wearing ear muffs. I have several pair, all purchased at gun shops (see The People in Apartment 22).
I started wearing ear muffs years ago when my daughters were in high school and would come home with their friends after field hockey, volleyball, basketball, or band practice. I remember telling them that I had finally found the solution to all the noise they made at a gun shop. That got their attention. They stared as I pulled out the ear muffs. Then, relieved that I hadn’t lost my mind, they continued as if nothing had changed. And, actually, nothing had changed. Sadly, that story leaves a much different impression today than it did twenty years ago before mass shootings at schools.
Suddenly, I heard a knock at my door. I looked around at the same time that a young woman in a hijab peered around the door jamb. “Excuse me,” she said with a smile, “but do you know if there are vending machines in the building?”
Now, I get some bizarre questions in a typical workday. They can be really frustrating either because I don’t understand the question or don’t have an answer. Often, it’s because of both, which is why my default position has been, “I don’t know.” If the conversation moves beyond that I inform them as tactfully as possible, “I don’t care.” In this case, however–and to my disbelief–I did know.
“Yes,” I said, “there’s a vending machine in the lobby.” Then, thinking she wanted a snack, I added, “but there’s a cafe on the other side of campus. I’m sure it’s still open.” “Oh, no, I’m here to check on the vending machine,” she said. “Check on the vending machine?” I repeated. “Yes, and if it’s no trouble, would you mind showing me where it is? That would be so kind of you.”
She must have sensed it. I am nothing if not a kind, gentle man. So, I had to oblige this woman and her strange request. Besides, I was fascinated. She wasn’t dressed like a worker, didn’t carry a bag of tools, and wore an elegant blouse and matching hijab. She was also beautiful. I would even say stunning. My guess is that she was Iranian, which, given the political situation in Iran, makes the story even more interesting. The hijab has a completely different context here, although we certainly have our version of morality police, including on college campuses, but that’s another story.
I led her to the vending machine. Then I watched and waited. She whipped out a digital device from somewhere, scanned the machine’s display, and punched a few buttons. Then she announced, “There, that’s that!” “Wow,” I said, “that’s what I call smart vending. So, you’re taking readings of the machines?” “Yes, it’s part of an inventory control system. It helps us with stocking the machines,” she said.
Though not sure of the “us” she referred to, I didn’t let it spoil the moment even after she went on about “continuous improvement” and artificial intelligence. “All of my intelligence is artificial,” I told her. And there we were, the two of us, in a deserted building sharing an Industry 4.0 moment that would have been unimaginably dull if not for the fact that it was so unexpected and involved someone who seemed to drop out of heaven. For a second I even wondered whether she might be an angel. I tend to be romantic (delusional) that way.
But think about it. The moment, the shared connection, the bit of flirting we did with each other, the absurd question and topic, the Terminator snack machine, and the incredible fact that I knew the answer to a question after a day of hits and misses. In fact, if I had been a batter, it would have been a .215 kind of day, which won’t get you into the playoffs.
And then she appeared and everything changed. That ought to tell you never to give up, never discount the power of grace, and always stop whatever you are doing to appreciate beauty. It comes in many guises.
Image credits: feature by Muhammad Faiz Zulkeflee; vending machines by Miltiadis Fragkidis. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.