She was standing at the head of the line, irritating all of us.
What the heck is taking so long?
I thought it and felt ashamed. Here I am at Caffeine Anonymous: am coffee junkie.
The guy in front of me was doing a strange, nervous dance. His toddler was impatient too, and he was holding her, trying to keep her settled.
Pointing to the display of giant cups, the kid warbled,
“Wa wa, wa wa.”
“Yes, I know you want one,” he said. “But if you drank that much at once…”
There really was no good way to end that sentence and his voice trailed off. He was unconvincing.
I have to go. This is ridiculous. I’m late!
“What’s her name? She’s so cute,” said another lady on the line, aiming her question at me.
Why do people automatically assume that men cannot take their children anywhere alone?
“I don’t know, she’s not my kid,” I snarled.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you two were together.” She shrunk away like a dying flower.
I stomped to the front of the line. This is not a good idea, said my inner voice, which I promptly disregarded.
And without any kind of good way to ask the question, I uttered,
“I’m sorry to bother you, but is there some kind of delay?”
The Barista looked at me like a deer at whom a hunter was aiming a shotgun. Clearly she was new, and flustered. But also clearly, this transaction was taking way too long.
Then the customer turned to face me.
“It’s my fault, I apologize.”
She was an older woman, not elderly but older, somewhere in the realm of late-fifties to early-sixties. She had blondish-graying hair pulled back in a short ponytail and the ponytail holder couldn’t quite capture all the wisps and strands. Her body was short and stocky, and she wore a red-and-white checkered blouse with a collar. Her pants were denim, not the type we would call jeans, and she had sneakers on her feet. She had short, stubby teeth and a little gap between them.
There was something about her.
“I am going to Afghanistan later today. I had to load up on some coffee first.”
And there they were. Six or seven ground bags, scattered across the counter.
“There’s only one more.”
Starbucks. This brand, my favorite brand, the brand that was founded in the year I was born, the brand that has been my home since my children were young, the brand that held me through the years of my dissertation, the place I have gone to sit and write and read and kick back and listen to music.
If I were going to Afghanistan or anywhere, it would never occur to me to stock up in advance because I’m a poor planner. But it would certainly, that first morning be like having a giant, throbbing toothache if I had to miss it.
This woman. She was a woman headed to Afghanistan, an older woman. Her bearing was not that of a soldier, a contractor, or even any ordinary person that I knew.
And then I looked at her again, and the sense-memory overwhelmed me, because I had worked there and I felt it.
“Do you work for USAID?” I asked.
She looked surprised that I would guess.
“Why yes, in fact, I do,” she said.
Nobody on Planet Earth talks in that educated yet plainspoken, positive way that USAID people do. It’s like a dialect you have to hear to understand but it was as plain as day. Of course!
I was happy just standing there and talking to her. It brought all the good memories back. “I worked in the Management Bureau.”
“Oh sure, of course.” Everybody knew “M” because we kept the agency in line, making sure that dreams were tempered by fiscal responsibility.
“I save them from themselves,” my brilliant boss used to say.
Yes, I am loud and the conversation was loud and everyone was craning their necks to hear although pretending they were looking elsewhere.
“What do you do there?”
“I work for GenDev,” she said.
Immediately I knew that she really did work for USAID and that she was probably important. I have a sense about these things. “GenDev” is gender development, and it basically means going overseas to help women gain equal rights. A subject I am passionate about.
Look, it’s a freaking dream. If you’re a student USAID is the kind of place you give your eye teeth to work in. You want to change the world and they change the world. When you’re there, if you have an idea they let you do it. It’s got a crazy energy, that place, and you can burn out pretty fast because you want to work all the time. But in that way it is heavenly, too.
My favorite project there was the one they let me loose on toward the end of my tenure. We revamped their mission and values statement, which had gone through several iterations and which had become unclear.
The management problem was too much passion. Nobody was sure where the center of gravity was, and everybody – unsurprisingly, for people who had dedicated their lives to their respective subject matter areas – thought their program ought to come first.
One thing they did agree on was the life-or-death nature of their mission, and the unfortunate reality that overseas charity work can be unpopular. “We look to others to give us ground cover, so that we can go out and save the world.”
I recall also that the issue of gender was huge, huge, huge at the time that I was there. I didn’t know much about it, I wasn’t involved in it, but the little I heard felt like one of the most important historical discussions I would ever witness.
…and my mind came back to the moment.
“I conceived of the program to help women in Afghanistan,” the woman was saying. “It’s called Promote, and I’m going over there to implement it. You can look it up. Raj was involved.”
I remembered how everyone at the agency called the head of the agency by his first name, Raj.
I remembered how I could never get over that, how to me it would be Mr. Shah, or Administrator Shah, or boss. I was raised that way; I could never be an intern who dared to address such a senior person so informally.
Speechless – the group, me, even the restless child went quiet.
People routinely get killed over there.
And I am terrible at hiding my feelings, thoughts or questions.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to get killed?”
“I’m not afraid of anything anymore.”
Oh, and I am shameless too.
“Can I take my picture with you?”
Startled, her body jumped a little bit off the floor. And then,
“Oh no,” she replied, looking down at the floor, her pants, her shoes, surveying her blouse and finally looking up at me. “I look terrible.”
Terrible? I thought. You are a most beautiful woman. Human.
And she was. She had a holy glow, like a light coming out of her face. It was unbelievable, something I cannot even express in the limited framework that words have to offer.
It also occurred to me that the agency does very dangerous work and I should not put her face or her name out there so obviously. Foreign aid workers are a target.
She knew what I was thinking. She laughed. “If I survive this, I get to retire.”
It’s a day later now. I imagine that her Starbucks-laden plane has landed by now.
May this unnamed person make a real difference in the lives of these women. May she come back home and be a living testament. May she teach us something about real human beauty. It comes from passion, unselfishness, dedication.
Beauty can’t be bought. You can mix chemicals in a lab, but you can’t put human goodness in a tube.
Dannielle Blumenthal (@thinkbrandfirst) is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Denis Collette via Flickr.