Image: Me and my scooter.
I’m staying at a hotel this week, and my room is on the eighth floor. I can’t walk very far without my mobility scooter, so every time I leave the floor, I use the elevator.
I press the button and wait. I never know what or whom I will see when the door opens; elevators are all surprise packages. The hotel is busy, so usually I ride with other people, and if I ride alone, someone is waiting when the door slides open in the lobby.
Nobody expects to be greeted by a fat lady on a tricycle when the elevator doors open. There are always nervous giggles and hesitation when other riders first see me. I get that. I would be very surprised if the door opened and another scooter-rider greeted me!
I would be content if they ignored me, per the usual elevator etiquette, but many men (it’s always men, for some reason) seem to feel they must say something. The comments are usually spoken in a jokey tone:
- Wow, how fast does that thing go?
- You don’t drink and drive, do you?
- Look out, Evil Kneivel is riding with us!
- Where did you drive from on that thing?
- Hey, Speed Demon!
I have heard each of those jokes more than once this week, except for the Evil Kneivel one. That one was original, I will admit.
From their expressions I can tell that the speakers are uncomfortable and are trying to be friendly. The problem is, those comments do not start a conversation. There is nothing to latch onto, no reply that makes any sense. So I smile vaguely without making eye contact and hope that one of us can exit soon.
Why talk about this on this blog? One of my fondest hopes is to make more people comfortable in synagogue. And this elevator talk is a sterling example of a kind of behavior that makes everyone UNcomfortable pretty much anywhere.
When we meet someone who is different than the ordinary, we feel uncomfortable. That is normal, and there is no need to feel badly about it. What we must learn is a routine to move past that discomfort quickly, if we are going to welcome people to our synagogue, or to be gracious guests in a synagogue. Jokes are counterproductive; comments on the other person’s appearance or person will get awkward fast.
It is counterproductive to focus on the thing that is different (the scooter, the tattoo, the skin color, the accent, the hair, whatever.) Commenting on it, or joking about it risks saying something at best annoying (how many times has the tall guy been asked how the air is up there?) and is at worst truly offensive (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) Instead, wise people focus on whatever things we may have in common:
- Wow, this elevator is slow!
- The weather is lovely today!
- Have you seen the garden here yet?
- Welcome to Beth Plony! Want a coffee?
- Wow, how about those Dodgers?
Then of course there’s the very best line for synagogue, if said sincerely:
- Hi! I’m Ruth. Have we met yet?