Out of the Woods / Good for him, shame on me
I walked into a shoe store in Westport recently, looking for a new pair of leather sandals. The first person I saw at the cash register was a dark-haired, somewhat unkempt young man who did not appear, at first glance, to be very inviting. So, I looked around for another sales person. Before I knew it, the man behind the cash register came up to me and offered to wait on me. I had no choice, despite my negative impression of his attire and demeanor.
"What are you looking for, sir?" he asked me in a monotone with a blank stare.
"Sandals. Leather. Brown." I replied succinctly, trying not to engage in conversation with him.
He immediately walked me to a nearby display, and I spotted the kind I wanted, pointing to them. "Sit down, sir, and make yourself comfortable," he said politely, but without a hint of warmth or even a smile. I was momentarily put off by his awkward manner of speaking -- like an automated voice -- but I nevertheless realized he was trying to give me first class service.
After I pointed out the kind of sandals I wanted, he brought a new box with a fresh pair in them. When I took off my sneakers to try them on, he immediately noticed the orthotic foot supports I had inserted in both sneakers, on top of the original soft pads.
"You should not be wearing the orthotic supports on top of the original liners," he said. Then he told me why -- going into minute detail about how many muscles, bones, tissues, and other aspects of the foot are involved in properly fitting a shoe. His knowledge was breathtaking; I asked him how he knew so much about feet.
He replied, almost in rote, "Well, you see, sir, I am autistic. I worked in a hospital attending to people's feet, but the hospital could not supply me with the equipment I needed to address the many problems I encountered. So I took a job here (in the shoe store), where I knew I could obtain a range of equipment and shoes to solve almost any problem. I took a salary cut, but now I can satisfy all of my customers.
"And you are happy working here?" I asked.
"Absolutely. Customer satisfaction is the most important thing to me," he said. "I want to know that you are satisfied before you leave. And if you are not, come back and I will find some other sandals for you."
By then, I realized that his behavior had been shaped by the condition he had. After he confided to me that he was autistic, my attitude changed markedly. I was both impressed with him and embarrassed that I had judged him so unkindly.
"That's very thoughtful of you," I replied, suddenly aware that he was outdoing himself to make up for what he undoubtedly perceived as a handicap. "I'm glad you shared that with me. You are an excellent salesman and the management is lucky to have you."
"Thank you sir," he replied, matter-of-factly, still not smiling.
"Remember now," he went on as I put on the new sandals and prepared to go to the cash register to pay him, "I want you to be totally satisfied with these sandals. That's important to me."
After paying with my credit card, I turned to leave. The salesman once again addressed me: "I hope this entire sale has been satisfactory to you. I want you to know that my goal is always to have a satisfied customer."
"I'm satisfied," I said firmly. "And thank you for your first-class service."
Not knowing much about autism, I looked it up when I got home and found some of the characteristics the salesman had displayed during our encounter. To list just a few: He showed "an inflexible adherence to specific routine or ritual; a stereotyped repetitive or unusual use of language; a restricted pattern of interest that is abnormal in intensity and focus; and a preoccupation with certain objects or subjects."
The point I wish to make is a lesson that I thought I had learned in the past: You can't judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge a person by his or her appearance or by the way they speak.
In this case, I did. I was badly mistaken. I felt humbled and a bit disappointed in myself. I undoubtedly needed that reminder.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.