On Thursday, October 14th, Willard Tillotson passed away. As the chairman of Hefren-Tillotson and a man deeply involved in the Pittsburgh community his funeral was attended by hundreds of people. I had the pleasure of meeting him, and as brief as it was, we still shared a good laugh.
I was standing in the first-floor lobby of Hefren-Tillotson, one of the largest financial planning firms in Pittsburgh, when the familiar ring sounded from the world’s slowest elevator known to mankind. Fidgeting, I tried to remember everyone’s names, what floor they worked on, and where their offices were. As the new temp-receptionist, it was my job to answer the phones, escort clients, type up seminar reports, and run errands if asked to do so.
However, and most importantly, my main job was to deliver the mail. I had been trained for two days, but today I was on my own, and had already delivered mail to the wrong person, twice. I sighed and eased my back onto the cold wall of the elevator. I keep messing up. I’ve been looking for a job forever and now I’m screwing up, I thought. The doors were sliding shut, when I heard muffled voices enter the lobby; I thrust my hand forward, holding the elevator.
“Hello Maryam,” a familiar voice said.
“Oh, Hi Ms. Lillian,” I responded.
Lillian Brandimarti, the company’s vice president of administration, waltzed in. Upon entering she smiled and lengthened into her height, relaxing. Following close behind was a man in a dark grey suit. His exterior was calm, pleasant. He entered the elevator, leisurely, with his head slightly bent forward and squinted in my direction, while smiling.
“Oh hello!” He said.
This has to be Mr. Tillotson, I thought. I hadn’t met him yet, the man who pioneered Hefren-Tillotson, who envisioned its longevity. “Hi!” I squeaked.
“And you are?” He said, extending his hand, while leaning forward.
“My name is Maryam sir. I work on the third floor, at the reception desk, with Ms. Barbara.
“Oh, you mean the fifth floor,” he said, nodding confidently.
And that’s when I panicked. What? No, I work on the third, but there’s no way there’s a fifth floor?! Oh no, I’m probably…no one told me!
Lost in my thoughts, I continued to badger myself and contemplate whether or not I should correct him (And hoped the elevator would increase its speed! You and I both know it didn’t, so I was stuck). And Mr. Tillotson was convincing, he stared blankly as if waiting for me to agree that I indeed worked on a fifth floor or that one even existed. As I stood there, he stared me down.
“Well…um, no sir. I am sure it’s the third floor and there isn’t…” But before I could finish, Lillian stifled a chuckle, which was followed by Mr. Tillotson’s hearty laughter.
“Oh.” I said, relieved, and let a nervous giggle escape.
“Haha! I had ya there!” Mr. Tillotson continued to laugh and patted me on the shoulder, reassuring, kind. “Well, it was nice meeting you.”
I stepped off the elevator, walked to my desk, thankful that the boss wasn’t as hard on me as I had been on myself.
Maybe Mr. Tillotson sensed my nervousness or noticed the worried look on my face. I don’t know for sure how he knew, but what I do know is that moment in the elevator changed how I felt about my job performance (and how I felt about myself in some way). Maybe joking around was his way to create laughter and get people to laugh at themselves, when they forgot to; to create laughter with another is one of the sincerest ways to connect and communicate a message of our sameness; a message of our ultimate desire to feel good about our lives.
I still deliver the mail to the wrong person or forget someone’s name occasionally, but I just laugh at myself now. And I think maybe that pat on the back from Mr. Tillotson was saying that in a way; maybe that joke was his way of saying it’s just your first week, and you’ll get it.
Thank you Mr. Tillotson, I did.