During the first wave of the pandemic, Russ, in the landscape industry, was officially considered by the Georgia Governor’s executive order to be an essential employee. That was a flood of mixed feelings. In the beginning we stayed home except for work and groceries. We didn’t go out to feel the freedom of empty roads with little traffic in those early days. I really enjoyed not buying gas. But, one day, for what reason I don’t remember, I took Russ to work. On the way we saw Santa Claus on the side of the road. How random is that in April? He had signs leading the way, thanking essential workers and encouraging people. And there he was, waving and dancing. After the initial delight, I want to know the backstory when I see something like this. Who was this guy? What motivated him?
I think I saw him maybe 3 times total, but it was every time I passed by. It wasn’t always a Santa costume. By the time I was driving that road often again, I wasn’t driving it during commute hours and there were only signs beside the road. I wanted to take a photo back while he was still out there, one with the sun rising behind him. Time got away from me. Then I wanted to photograph just the signs. Then there was only one sign left. It was the smiley face attached to a traffic sign. After missing the previous photo opportunities, being in a rush, not having time, not making time, I finally stopped to take a photo of the smiley face sign before it too was gone.
I didn’t want to park in turn lanes, so I pulled into the neighborhood next to the sign. There wasn’t a great place to park, so I parked across the street from a driveway, but it was a narrow street with houses on only one side. There was a little less room than normal street parking. When I came back to the car after taking the picture, there was a man in the driveway looking at me like he was wondering what I was doing.
I said Hi, and told him that I had stopped to take a photo of the sign and apologized if my parking had bothered him. He introduced himself. He said he was the guy! He put all the signs out there and stood there waving and smiling at passers by during those dark early days of the pandemic, and then he kept it going. The person to get the backstory from was standing right in front of me, and he was talking to me about the whole thing. I guess I picked the best time to stop after all. His name is Jerry and he’s a professional Santa. Santas had a rough go of the pandemic too, BTW, but Jerry didn’t say anything about that.
Jerry was out there at 6AM every day, then cut it back to two days a week. He was out there for a total of 6 months waving at people and thanking them for being essential workers. One day his wife asked him how many people he thought he had an impact on. His guess was 25 per day, but then he decided to count reactions, and realized that he could count 150 positive reactions a day, and sometimes he was in the dark, he wasn’t even sure that he could see all of the reactions. On top of that, people stopped to talk to him and thank him, to tell him that they shared what he was doing with co-workers and it cheered them too. He was really having an effect, making a lot of smiles and laughs. His big message for me was that his effort was totally worth it. He let people know that they mattered, and the cool part is that they let him know that he did too.
Jerry’s big focus was on the more essential jobs, from healthcare workers to waste collectors, but he made a difference to everyone who was out there driving by, and the Georgia list of essential workers was pretty big.
Russ was out there commuting every day, caught in a fog, grateful to be employed, grateful to have income that we needed, while also wondering if it would cost him his life. The official governor’s executive order was a cruel Catch-22 with no good options for high risk workers who actually needed their income. Russ’ company instituted new procedures to limit contact between crews and did everything they could to make it as safe as possible. At the same time, it’s hard to wrap your mind around beautiful landscapes as essential work. Bad things do happen when landscape maintenance goes by the wayside. Vandalism and vermin increase, but it’s not at the forefront of what people think about when they think of who’s job is essential.
It was and still is a struggle for everyone. But, it’s easier for some of the essential workers to know exactly why they’re essential, and harder for others. If you’re saving lives everyday, you know that risking your own is worth it. The more removed your work is from saving lives, the harder it is to see it as anything but risking your life for a paycheck. The pressure and opinions through the pandemic were and are still relentless, most of them dictated by what the holder of those opinions feared most. One day I asked Russ if he (Santa Jerry) was still out there. He said “What?, oh, I don’t know.”
There’s was a row of signs like you’re coming up on a Stuckey’s or Rock City and at the end of it Santa Claus is jumping and dancing and waving and Russ didn’t know if he was still out there? At the time that I asked that question, Jerry was still out there, and Russ was too distracted to see him.
I just said that Jerry mattered, and then I said, for all his effort, he still faded into the background for Russ. But, the thing is, both are true. When people are that stressed out, the Jerrys of the world all matter. The guy on the Silver Comet telling people to have a glorious day matters, even when you are no longer consciously aware of them, even if they become background noise, the noise is good. It matters that there is good background noise. People who love people redeem the rest of us.
I went to a funeral service for Russ’s Uncle Woody a few years ago. The pastor built the entire sermon on Uncle Woody’s favorite greeting, “God loves you and so do I.” Woody would say that and offer his hand. I never saw him do it. I met him at a family reunion and he didn’t do it there. Apparently he did it everywhere else. I love the unconditional love that gesture conveyed. I don’t know how to offer my own version of it to people. I want my own version. I want it to be inclusive of different belief systems. I want something just as warm as Woody’s, but universal. It’s harder now. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and I’m really ready to leave handshakes behind forever, but the elbow bump feels more trendy than warm. I just don’t feel it. When I was active in ballooning, we all hugged a lot. Not everyone, because not everyone is a hugger, and that’s way too up close and personal for the pandemic era. What puts your mind and body into a greeting like Woody’s for today? I’m not sure.
Extroverts like Jerry have figured out how to reach out to people. And, we are all better for it. Not everyone can be a Jerry, not everyone should. People are different. Some are introverts, some are distracted, some are having a bad day, some have the weight of everything precious and ephemeral on their shoulders. But, reaching for the connection, however you can is a good thing, and even when people don’t respond noticeably, we get that strangers care enough to get out there every day and work for nothing more than a smile. When that happens, we’re in a world with a more beautiful backstory. When the world is crushing, the compassion and the connection are the background music that gets us through. And sometimes when we see or meet a Jerry, we smile, inside or out, and our heavy thoughts are replaced with lighter ones for just long enough.