I once worked with a woman who was originally from Montserrat, and probably the best way to describe her would be to say she was both entertainingly cruel (when looking at a coworker’s high school yearbook picture: “Wow! You weren’t so fat then!”) and a total idiot (when O.J. Simpson was found innocent: “I knew it!”). But the one thing I found actually interesting about her was what she brought for lunch each day. If you work in an office for any amount of time, you definitely notice other people’s lunches; that’s just the way it goes. I certainly try not to judge (once at a temp job, I saw a coworker put an entire rotisserie chicken into a microwave, which was totally fine), but I can’t help noticing things.
First of all, there are always those people heating up frozen diet entrées. Could they be happy with that crap? I have no idea. Then there are the people who buy their lunch and bring it back to their desk, and it sometimes smells so good you want to kill them, or so mysteriously unappealing you feel the same way. And then you have those people just bringing in sandwiches or leftovers. Sometimes people will heat up the tiniest container of leftovers and I can’t imagine that that could be all they are eating for lunch. But then again, there is a candy dish at the table of one of my coworkers, which everyone dips into when they walk by. It’s a terrible thing.
Usually I bring in leftovers and when I heat them up I sometimes get to hear, Wow, what’s that? That smells great! But sometimes I hear, Wow, it smells really garlicky in here, and this statement can either be approval or total lack of approval. I’m not always sure which it is.
In any case, my Montserrat coworker used to bring an entire dinner with her for lunch. A dinner is different than leftovers, trust me. She explained once that where she came from, they ate their largest meal in the middle of the day, and there was no reason she was going to stop doing that now. I found it sad but also fascinating that she was eating her dinner every day in a conference room with people she barely liked who barely liked her.
She would sit at the conference table with a delicious-smelling plate of stew made of fish or meat and vegetables and wonderful spices and often look out the window wistfully, possibly thinking of afternoon meals she had once enjoyed not in a conference room, and it was in those moments (when she wasn’t speaking) that I actually liked her. Her lunches made me like her.
This is basically how I’ve always been. A person can be awful or unbearable, but sometimes they can make one small gesture, or do one unexpected and interesting thing, and then I have to like them. You know how in The Catcher in the Rye Holden goes on about how much he loved (probably it knocked him out) how his friend Jane Gallagher always kept her kings in the back row when she played checkers? It’s kind of like that. But in his case, Jane was someone he already liked. I can truly dislike someone but then be unexpectedly delighted by something small.
I once had a 400-pound coworker who was mostly a jerk and smashed his chair to pieces out of frustration one day, but he did tell us that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” had thrown a ball at his head when he was a kid, which led to his “difficult” personality and subsequent weight gain. This didn’t exactly make me like him, but it was the thing I liked most about him, strange as this sounds.
That’s all it takes: one interesting detail. Which probably makes it sound like it is very difficult for me to truly dislike people, and in a way, that’s correct. There are plenty of people I despise from a distance (some Republican senators and presidential candidates come to mind), but it’s harder for me when I actually know someone in person. I’m not even sure this is a good thing. I love people’s quirks so much that I would probably let anyone get away with anything. I mean, it kind of depressed me to see George W. Bush’s paintings because they were really pretty good.
But anyway, all I’m saying is that the next time you look at your annoying coworker eating a huge plate of garlicky lunch, just remember: he might have played the oboe as a child, or has a brother who’s a clown, or even once lived in Canada! These are some things that might make him seem not as entirely awful, just a little more human.