At a coffee shop waiting to meet a person, I heard someone else say my name. It was a guy I worked with when I was in college and he was in high school. We always got along, helped by a shared fondness for Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love and singing while we were supposed to be stocking shelves, filling propane tanks, cleaning, or helping customers with plumbing questions. I felt myself open into a smile and reached to shake his hand.
We talked like semi-old men. I asked about his girls, and he said that he had just been telling one of them about our old boss. I said, I've seen him around town a couple times. I didn't mention his red baseball hat that marks him as exactly the kind of man he was and always will be. I just said I'd seen him.
"He's still alive?" my friend asked, feigning shock. I nodded and admitted that I had avoided conversation. I hadn't even waved. He hadn't seem to recognize me or chose to act as though he hadn't.
My friend said he had told his girl about maybe the one bit of wisdom our boss had ever knowingly imparted to anyone.
It was back when my friend was walking around the store in untied work boots, clunking and scuffing along as was the style then (and maybe now too). Our boss called from his office, come in here. My friend went, expecting to be told to clean out the shed, vacuum the housewares section, or restock the pesticides, but no, our boss said, _don't let me hear you scuffing your boots like that. You sound lazy."
Our old boss had been wrong about many things, but both my friend and I agreed if you sound lazy, you might as well be lazy, and then forget about you.
When I taught kids who were all but labeled stupid, I told them to try and sound smart. If you sound smart, people may think you're smart, and that's almost as good because it gets you in with smart people which makes you smarter. On the flip-side, if your go-to words are fuck, nigga, and bitch, you sound anything but smart and the world will gladly treat you as such.
I heard arguments for the culture of those words, but they're the same arguments for scuffing boots. No matter what, these things project our identity and are how others project identities onto us.
My friend and I smiled at the story. The person I was meeting arrived. I shook my friend's hand again and he went on his way. The person I met had the feeling I was more capable than I really am. I've projected confidence. After our meeting, I walked out of the shop and across the street, my shoes tight against my feet, not scuffing even a little.