Dignity and respect

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

I go to Los Angeles periodically and the last time I was there I was having dinner with an elder. She wanted to go someplace close to the water so we could watch the ocean birds and the sunset. The restaurant she chose was an upscale chain restaurant and we had to wait over an hour to get in.

The valet parked the car and it was six dollars just to park in the lot. We were finally seated and waiting for our salads when a couple came in and they seemed almost  like they were from a TV show. He was in his mid-fifties and wearing a white shirt that was open about halfway down and he had five or six gold chains around his neck and a Rolex watch on his wrist. His salon haircut was dyed blonde and he clearly had money. She was half his age and she was beautiful and tan and she looked like she was an entertainer. The waiter seated them at a small table next to ours. The woman pointed to a long table and said, “I want to sit there.”

“You can’t, ma’am, there is a family of twenty sitting there.”

“I’m done talking to you! I demand to talk to the manager!”

The waiter left and came back with the manager. He asked her, “How can I help you?”

“I want to sit at that table. This one is too small.”

“But there’s a family going to be sitting there.”

“I don’t care. I demand to sit at that table!” The man with her didn’t say anything and it seemed he was used to interactions like this. He looked absently at his watch.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. Can I get you a free bottle of wine?”

“OK, but I don’t want that waiter. He was rude to me. I want you to wait on us.”

So the manager waited on their table and had to come back often as she had lots of demands. He was pleasant and apologetic and he took her repeated abuse gracefully.

A couple of days later an older version of the woman in the restaurant was on the freeway in a black BMW and she tried hard not to let me into her lane. I had my turn signal on and the space in front of her was the only spot I could get into as there was traffic ahead of me and behind me. She closed the gap and her scowl turned her bright red lipstick down on both sides of her face. I finally had to move into the spot and she had to give way. I waved my thanks at her as I moved into the spot in front of her and she honked her horn and gave me the finger. I could see how angry she was as she followed me on the slow moving freeway for several more miles.

My flight out of Los Angeles was an early flight and I was on my way to the airport at 4:00 AM. I had to drive through a long section of city that was all fast food places and pawn shops and stores with bars on the windows and the normally busy streets were all but empty. I came to a stoplight and at the intersection was a small convenience store. The clerk was sweeping the parking lot and there were newspapers slowly blowing through like tumbleweeds. He was wearing a turban and a long white robe and he had a beard. He was pushing a pile of paper cups and beer cans in front of him with a push broom when a homeless man pushing a shopping cart piled high with rags and cans and cardboard cut slowly across the parking lot. His shoes didn’t match and his hair and his jacket were dirty and he was limping. He was in his sixties and for some reason I assumed he was a veteran. The clerk looked at him, then set his broom aside and went into the store, I assumed to call the police.

Instead, he came out with a cup of coffee and a donut and he brought them to the homeless man and he gently held them out to him. The light turned green, but there was no other traffic and I stayed at the intersection and watched. The homeless man looked at the clerk almost suspiciously and didn’t move. The clerk nodded to him and lifted the coffee and the donut up just a little bit higher and held them out to him. The homeless man reached slowly for them and he didn’t believe they were actually his until he took them from the clerk. He took a bite of the donut and a sip of the coffee and he tipped his head back and closed his eyes and smiled as he held his face into the soft morning breeze. He opened his eyes and brought his head back down and looked into the clerk’s eyes and the clerk looked back at him and nodded once and smiled, then he went back to sweeping the parking lot.

The light turned green again and I drove through the intersection and headed toward the airport. I could see the sky just starting to turn pink as I drove the empty streets and I left the convenience store far behind me.

There was nothing that connected the clerk and the homeless man and I was the only witness to a simple and powerful act of kindness that I believe changed all three of us. No words were exchanged and none were needed. Dignity and respect belong to all of us and they cannot be hoarded, they have to be given away. I watched the sunrise from the plane as I was heading home and I thought about the couple in the restaurant and the woman on the freeway.

I see riches when I travel, but they aren’t always the ones that matter.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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