As I rode the bus on the way home from work, I tried to grade papers, but given the close quarters, it was hard not to overhear the conversations of the other riders. Most of them discussed the weather with their seatmate or spoke with a friend over their cell phone.
After several new passengers boarded at a stop on Crenshaw Boulevard, things got a little more interesting.
“Mary!” called out a woman already on the bus. “Mary!”
One of the people who had just stepped on looked up and smiled. “Carol! How are you?” Mary found a seat next to her friend. She set her bag between her feet with a sigh. “Big day at work today.”
“The eldest daughter is engaged to be married.”
Absentmindedly, Carol stroked her head of tight silver curls. “Still cleaning for the same family? In Hancock Park?”
Mary nodded. “Been there more than ten years now. I’ve watched those kids growin’ up since they was babies.”
“How many are there?” her friend asked.
“Eight?” Carol’s eyes got big.
“They’re a big, Jewish family. Orthodox.” Mary sat back a little in her seat and slid her feet out of her shoes.
“What’s that like?” Carol asked. “Working for one of those Orthodox families?”
Sitting a couple rows back, I tried not to look like I was eavesdropping, but I really wanted to know what Mary would say. I’d been Orthodox myself for a couple years by then, and I wondered how we appeared to non-Jews. Truthfully, I felt nervous: what if her employers mistreated her? If I could hear their conversation, so could all the other people on the bus.
Mary continued, “They’re real G-d- fearing people. Always treat me good. They pay me decent, and on time – always. And the kids talk polite.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. As Carol and Mary moved on to other topics – their church and the friends they had in common – I thought about what had just happened. In Hancock Park, a family employed this woman to clean their house and look after their kids for a decade. Through tiny, consistent actions, they established a rapport with her, and built a relationship of respect and trust. They did all of this because it was the right thing to do.
Had they ever imagined that their behavior would be broadcast to dozens of people sitting on a bus? That their private actions would turn into a kiddush Hashem? It made me consider: what would my housekeeper say about me if given the opportunity? At the time, we had no cleaning help, so this was all hypothetical – but nonetheless, it gave me pause.
It really shouldn’t have. In Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Yehudah haNasi says that we should contemplate three things, and will never come to sin: “a watchful eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.” Even if no one tells a bus full of strangers about my actions, they are always seen by G-d.
Fourteen years have passed since that incident, and I still think about it. I’ll never know the identity of Mary’s employers – for all I know, I’ve met them! – but their behavior still serves me as a reminder to treat every person with respect.