Tracy Lee Karner
The Way I Was

When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you

Tracy Lee Karner
When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!

Some people might think she’s a little scary, the eccentric woman who rides the bus, always carrying a backpack and a few bags like a rag-picker.

Whenever I see her, I hear the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby song playing in the back of my head. Ah, look at all the lonely people…

And I wonder, what’s her story? Sometimes she mutters to herself, sometimes angrily.

“Sometimes her meds work,” a man on the bus said one day when the bus stopped to pick her up, “sometimes they don’t.” He had seen it before, and had a premonition about what was going to happen. Instead of boarding the bus, she gestured “go on, leave me alone.”  The bus driver closed the door and left her standing there, and she seemed strangely relieved. That’s when I thought of the Almond Joy / Mounds commercial  where the nutty jocky is riding his horse backward. And I felt guilty for thinking the word nut when I was, in fact, thinking about a human.

So, out of a kind of quiet shame, the next time she boarded the bus, I smiled at her when she sat down in the seat across from me.

She noticed me and she stared at me hard.  Her eyes were brown, her skin was brown from the sun, her face was lined with worry. Her hair was cut like Coco Channel’s–a swingy, chic lustrous brown bob without a lick of gray. Who cuts her hair, I wondered? She was attractive once, having the thin, chiseled features and penetrating eyes that people used to say made a woman handsome.

“You smiled at me,” she said.

I nodded like a dumb marionette. And because I’m the kind of person who smiles out of sheer nervousness, I smiled again, tentatively.

“No one ever smiles at me,” she said loudly. And her face became like a flower blossoming in time-lapse photography. She transformed into someone beautiful.

“Well,” I said, not even knowing what I ought to be saying, just saying something in order to say something. “People, just don’t smile enough anymore.”

“No,” she agreed. “It’s true. People don’t smile enough anymore” And she sat there, humming and looking out the window, and now and then she would glance my way  and smile that winning smile again, giving me a nod of acknowledgement, as if we were two women sharing some delicious sisterly wisdom.

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17 thoughts on “When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you”

  1. Aw, I LOVE this, Tracy. You made all the difference. She was right; people don’t smile enough anymore. The laugh AT more than WITH, giggle nervously, and grin. But they don’t genuinely smile enough anymore. You set something wonderful in motion.
    And the smiling baby picture was a perfect post accent!

    1. Interesting that you felt that I had made a difference–I suppose I did. On the other hand, the reason the encounter had such an impact on me, wasn’t because of the difference I made to her, but the difference she made to me. I’ve been more open and friendly toward strangers, smiling more easily and without such “city-bred” fear, since that moment (which happened about a month ago). And I’m glad you like the baby. I thought it was an infectious smile, but I was worried whether people would wonder what the connection between the story and the baby was. It’s a bit of a reach–

  2. What a touching experience! The truth is, we all profile strangers, and not always about color of skin. We notice the way a person is dressed, the look on their face, the way they carry themselves, what we perceive as their attitude. Too often we look away – “I’ll act like I don’t notice her” – “He might say something and people will think he and I are friends”. All it took was a simple self-concious smile to make the “weird” lady take on human features. Yes, trust your gut in certain situations, but sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is make eye contact and smile.

    1. I’m getting better at trusting my gut. I realize that I’m not as childlike and open as I used to be, because smiling at strangers has gotten me into difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations–which made me, for a long time, very fearful and wary. I think it takes some life experience, gained from wisdom, to be able to assess–without “profiling”–whether the stranger is potentially dangerous or harmless. I’m glad that now I’m able to smile more often again. It feels more human.

      1. I’ve done the same thing – trusting the wrong people – and getting hurt, badly hurt. I think my change of heart came when I heard the story “A Man Called Norman”. It hit so close to home because in the town near where I grew up, there was a man called “Norm” – some called him “The Mayor of West End” and poked fun at him. He may have suffered from PTSD from the war or another type of challenge. Since then I’ve tried to open my eyes and my heart toward people who may be different from me. We still have to use wisdom and discretion to protect ourselves, but I agree with Marylin that you made a difference and set something in motion.

    1. I used to smile more often when I was younger–but for some reason I turned more inward and preoccupied. Some of that certainly has to do with living in a metropolitan area, rather than in a small town or countryside. I’m trying to get back to noticing people as people, and not just passing them as if they were traffic signs, automobiles, or window mannequins….

  3. Great post, and so true, Tracy. Most of us nowadays have become judgmental and self-focused and we barely look at people who do not fit in our world – let alone smile at them or at one another for that matter.
    And by the way, I loved your quote of Eleanor Rigby: such a great song! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Stefano. I, too, love the Beatles poetry, some of the best songs of the 20th century, in my opinion.

      Strangely–the same thing happened again today–the same woman waved the bus on after it pulled over to pick her up. I won’t go into the details about why I suddenly understood what she was doing and why, but I did–it had to do with coming to see her as a person, and not just as a nut, weirdo, inconvenience…. she’s a “neighbor,” a person I frequently encounter in the neighborhood. (Maybe Sesame Street should teach us to think about the people in our neighborhood we can’t “categorize”–as teacher, salesperson, delivery person–but we still can learn to recognize them as “neighbors”) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwDq32MtOQU

  4. I enjoyed the story. That woman said no one ever smiles at her, but I bet she gets plenty of frowns and unkind words. I believe what she really meant was that she didn’t see many people open so much as a splinter of their hearts to her. When we smile, we open up our hearts and share a piece of ourselves. I am sure you made her day and she appreciated your generosity in letting your smile spill onto her.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Elizabeth. I think she did appreciate it–and I’m glad she had the courage to say out loud, for the whole bus to hear, that she notices when people do or don’t smile at her. It made an impact, made all of us consider how our faces reflect our hearts…

      1. Oh, yes, our faces give us away and our mannerisms also tattle on us. The way you describe it, I could see her saying it for everyone to hear, with a hint of inner satisfaction. Thank you for visiting my blog and for following!

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