Swift: Thursdays with Tony: How one extraordinary human taught me a crash course in humanity

Tammy Swift, columnist. The Forum

Imagine walking through a mall with a small child.

He has a big, wide grin and hasn’t yet learned of the potential threats of life. Everyone is a friend to him. He greets each new person as if he’s genuinely happy to meet them — as if it’s a joyful moment shared with another human being and he’s not afraid to connect.

“Hello!” he says. “How are you? It’s Thursday today!”

Upon seeing his cute, freckled face and childish zeal, most will smile back. They’ll walk away, feeling just a little lighter and brighter. For just a moment, they’ll enjoy that brief spark of real connection — that reminder of what is good, sweet and hopeful in the world.

This will continue until his parents get embarrassed and shush him or warn him that it is dangerous to talk to strangers. And he will be smarter and more aware after that, but he will never be quite the same. He will never again possess that same magic of the truly new, open and trusting human being.

Now imagine if that behavior came from a 20-something man. Tony is small, wiry and ginger-haired. He walks with a slightly lopsided gait. But his smile? It’s like the sun. He is genuinely happy to meet each and every human he encounters.

“Hello!” he hollers to a young, blond clerk hanging clothes. She looks startled, then smiles and returns his greeting. “It’s Thursday!” he’ll announce, waiting for her to respond. “Yes it is,” she offers back, tentatively, trying to assess the situation.

She sees that he is sweet and guileless, and that he is accompanied by his guardian, a well-dressed young woman who smiles reassuringly. “Gotta go to work tomorrow!” he chimes, grinning ear to ear.

She is kind and decides to play along. “Today is my Friday,” she says, smiling. “Thank goodness!”

“Thank goodness!” he echoes in commiseration. “Have a great day!”

And he’s off, ready to make his next new friend. He offers the same greeting, with the same unflagging enthusiasm, to every person he meets. Some ignore him and look away. A mother with a baby smiles uncomfortably, then quickly scoots the child’s stroller in the opposite direction.

Some smile warmly, return his greeting and agree that it is indeed Thursday. If people engage, he launches into conversation.

“Tomorrow’s Friday!” he says, in a voice that echoes throughout the whole store. “Gotta work tomorrow!”

Sometimes, his guardian gently reins him in if he gets a little too zealous. “OK, Tony, use your inside voice,” she might prompt. If bystanders look especially perplexed, she’ll soften the situation with a smile and a little humor: “He’s just the world’s best greeter!”

ARCHIVE: Read more of Tammy Swift's columns

I happen to be accompanying the two on this day, as she is my friend. But I’m not used to Tony’s high-energy displays of friendliness. I have to admit to feeling a little embarrassed.

After all, we live in a world defined by social norms. Most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated into how to navigate in public: Avoid eye contact with strangers. Don’t be too friendly. Don’t cause a scene. If someone says hi, return a polite greeting and hurry on your way.

Whatever you do, especially if you’re in the Midwest, blend in. But “Tony” is not interested in blending. He is interested in greeting.

He is extremely interested in a few other things as well: his favorite sports teams, country-western music, certain TV shows and time. He has an uncanny sense of time. In fact, if you ask him what time it is, he will often guess correctly — even if there isn’t a clock or cellphone in sight.

But here’s the real miracle: Tony has little reason to embrace the world so exuberantly. Due to his developmental delays, he is different. People have not always been kind to him, and his childhood contained a lot of rejection, chaos and abuse. He has every reason to distrust humans and turn inward.

Yet his childlike faith — his deeply anchored belief that most people are good and worthy of connection — remains untouched. It’s fair to say that once people meet Tony, they remember him — not because of his unorthodox behavior or boisterous greetings. They remember him for his warmth, his enthusiasm and the sheer force of his personality.

A man who once worked with Tony in a group home described him perfectly: “Some people smile and they light up a room,” the man said. “Tony smiles and he lights up the block.”

Why do I tell this story? Because my time with Tony has taught me many things: That, perhaps, we are too intolerant and judgmental when people don’t fill our preconceived idea of behavior.

That perhaps embarrassment can be a wasted emotion, and we waste way too much mental energy caring what complete strangers think.

And, most importantly, that we can find the strongest and most inspiring of human spirits in people we too readily dismiss. Thank you, Tony, for teaching me that.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.