carries a pearl In perfect condition What once was hers What
once was friction What left a mark No longer stains Because
grace makes beauty Out of ugly things —“Grace,” U2
I have two favorite bumper stickers that, were I a bumper-sticker
kind of girl, I would plaster onto my fender.
The first one is Mean People Suck.
And who, at present (and leaving aside members of the current
administration), can top the sheer meanness of the Washington,
D.C., administrative-law judge, Roy Pearson? He’s the pants-less
jackass who just has brought a $54 million lawsuit against
his mom-and-pop dry cleaners.
You probably know the story: Custom Cleaners, a family-run
business, tailored four pairs of pants for Judge Pearson,
yet they only returned three of them. When he pointed out
their error, they gave him a fourth pair—but these had cuffs!
Judge Pearson insisted that he had not worn cuffs since the
1970’s. These were imposter pants and not his own at all!
Legally, the suit is not about the pants—if you follow what
I’m saying. It’s about a sign posted in the dry cleaners that
said “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Pearson’s legal contention
is that ‘Satisfaction’ means satisfaction and ‘Guaranteed’
means guaranteed. Pearson thinks he was owed both and got
Never mind that at one point the Korean family who runs the
dry cleaners and speaks little English, offered him $10,000
in damages, which he refused. No, for the protection of all
consumers and for the sake of suits everywhere, it is more
important that he ruin the lives of small- business owners
trying to support their family by working day after day among
chemical toxins so that people of means—or in Judge Pearson’s
case, mean people—can have clean pants.
There is a back-story, of course. Apparently Judge Pearson
got taken to the cleaners in a recent divorce and now he’s
out for a little quid pro quo. But really, no matter how outlandish
the suit is and how unreasonable the apparent reason for it,
Judge Pearson exemplifies the bumper sticker wisdom that Mean
They do, of course. But what I want to know is, what makes
people mean? What gives some people a sense of entitlement
to abuse others? And I don’t even mean physical abuse. That’s
in another horrible class of its own. I want to know what
is satisfying about randomly and/or unnecessarily causing
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Because my other favorite bumper sticker says Grace Happens.
Just not often enough.
A few years ago my friend Karen and I were meeting for breakfast.
As I was walking down the street to the restaurant, I saw
a woman striding along dragging her child by her arm. And
she was lighting into the girl, belittling her, accusing her,
calling her names. The child was crying and running to keep
up with her hell-on-heels mother.
I felt such a rush of rage and sorrow that by the time I got
to the table I was in tears. I blubbered out my story to Karen
and she nodded, teary-eyed, too. Because just that morning
she had heard her downstairs neighbor’s son sobbing once again
as his mother yelled at him once again. It was all his fault,
the mother said. He was sick. His medicine cost too much money.
And now there wouldn’t be any Christmas presents for anybody.
Not for anybody.
Meanness. It’s wilier than cruelty, a choice, not a compulsion.
And grace is the other choice.
Which is why this tender story always brings me to tears—as
reliably as meanness does:
My daughter, Linnea, and I were on vacation last year strolling
along by this big carousel in a town square. Children were
laughing and running across the uneven paving stones of the
square. All of a sudden a little girl tripped and fell, scraping
her knee and starting to cry. But even before she could exhale
into the first sob, her mother sank down beside her and folded
her into her arms. The little girl sobbed into her mother’s
shoulder, her mother murmuring comfort, rubbing her back.
It was the tender dance of grace. And it was a dance I remembered
so well: The child hurts and the enfolding arms heal. It is
as natural as breathing, as innate as touch.
I looked at Linnea—now taller than I am. She looked at me,
then enfolded me with her long arm.
reminded me of you and me when I was little,” she said, “And
how good it was to know that kind of love and tenderness when
I was her age. But I just don’t understand how the world can
be so full of all of the horrible things it is when it can
also be full of such tenderness.”
I don’t understand why, either. I never will. All I know is
that this is a world full of both the meanest of people and
the most tender of love.
Linnea and I walked back to our hotel, hand-in-hand, as we
had done when she was a child, when she had been the age children
are when they find themselves either under the thumbs of mean
people or tenderly waltzing in grace.