Signs of the Times

e had dinner at Lombardino’s recently with six old friends, a leisurely meal we had all been eagerly anticipating. That weekend night, the restaurant was busy as usual with a lively and loud crowd that made conversation a challenge. But we were enjoying ourselves. Too much perhaps? Or, rather, too long? Apparently for somebody.

As we were finishing our desserts and coffee a waiting patron, not a staff member, mind you, but a customer-to-be, approached our table and asked us if we’d mind leaving as his party had been waiting a half hour for a table. A manager quickly arrived, reproached the man and whisked him away, but we were a little stunned and later flabbergasted at the guy’s chutzpah. We initially wrote it off as the act of an inconsiderate boor. But then we started wondering about this economic mess and its effect on people. Everyone seems a little jumpy. Or worse. A lot of people are simply frightened. And some are angry. And some are aggressive.

As we continued thinking about the impact of this recession on the genuine articles we highlight in this column every month we were struck by a sense of retreat. We, collectively, have become more careful, cautious, hunkered down. We’re in survival mode and hence feeling a little more isolated and disconnected. It’s a crisis of confidence in systems and in people inside those systems.

Which brings us to generosity.

If we’re a little more sensitive to fissures in our systems and our civility, we’re equally sensitive to acts of genuine generosity. These small gestures go a long way in these survival of the fittest times. We pulled into Budd’s Auto Repair on Monroe Street one frigid January day fearing the rattle beneath the car was a breakdown waiting to happen. Denny quickly lay down on the frozen ground, slipped underneath the car, and wrestled away some rusted old piece of the long-past-its-prime jalopy we use to get around. And then he refused payment.

Same thing happened on a recent visit to Cecil’s West on Odana Road. We brought in a purse with a broken handle. Cecil fixed it but said it was “too small a job” to pay for. Associate editor Shayna Miller had a similar experience at Cecil’s. There’s more. Gene Pachel, our regular, wonderful plumber, told us over the phone how to fix our garbage disposal. When we told him to consider the potential of a new profession, call-in repair guy, he replied, “I do it all the time.” The good folks at Utpala Tibetan Rugs were so gracious in letting us procrastinate about a rug we’d brought home. We kept the rug. They got our business. It’s the little things.

We were heartened when our cashier at the Willy Street Co-op told us there’d been little change in the number of people voluntarily donating one percent of their receipt total to the Community CHIP program which supports community organizations. And then there’s the ceramics exhibit at the Dane County Regional Airport. That’s right, we’re recommending you hop in the car and see a lovely art exhibit—at the airport. Thanks to the generosity of Tandem Press here in Madison, dozens of selected ceramic art pieces from the Colleen and Dennis Bindley Collection are beautifully displayed just inside the front doors of the Dane County Regional Airport Art Court. If you limit your viewing to fifteen minutes you don’t even have to pay for parking. But bring a buck anyway and stay a little longer. It’s a wonderful exhibit.

When things feel like they’re coming apart, like the fabric of our society is fraying, there’s nothing like some authentic generosity to restore our confidence, our faith in community and each other and reinforce that oh-so-important sense of “Hey, we’re in this together.”

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to .