When I was 12, I became the shopkeeper for my family’s roadside produce stand. My life, as most people would have defined it, was small: The South Carolina town that contained my family’s farm had a population of 162 people, and a good number of them were related to me. Most folks who stopped by were on their way to somewhere else—the freshwater lake for bass fishing, a girls’ weekend in Charlotte or Atlanta. These out-of-towners would marvel at our prices, meant to be affordable for locals. “Everything is so cheap,” they’d say, filling their baskets with okra, tomatoes, and cantaloupes I’d picked that morning. I will never forget the nauseous feeling that unfurled in me when the things my family worked so hard to cultivate were described this way. Still, I always accepted the money with a smile, the way my forebears taught me, grateful for it, even if it came at the expense of my self-esteem.
In college, I worked as waitstaff and in housekeeping for a variety of my university’s special events: concerts, receptions, alumni reunions. I spent early mornings stripping sheets, perfecting hospital corners, or sprawled on the floor, stomach down, peering under beds to make sure visitors hadn’t left anything. Rarely did anyone ever say “thank you.” This means that for close to two decades I worked in jobs where I was invisible or, at best, looked down on as “the help.”
I promised that when I got my chance, I would be the type of traveler I wished I saw more of in my hometown.
I have always understood that who I am as a person and what I do for a living are two different states of being that just happen to share a body. I learned from an early age that many folks are in their occupation for a variety of reasons: obligations, circumstances, or lack of resources. I promised that when I got my chance, I would be the type of traveler I wished I saw more of in my hometown—respectful, curious without being judgmental, and appreciative of the work.
Travel is an enormous privilege. As a writer and a professor, I get to move through the world in a way that was out of reach for my ancestors and is still out of reach for many people. I’m grateful my life allows me to do these things, so in turn, I do what I can to help the people I meet feel seen. I read name tags and call staff members by their names; if I don’t know how to pronounce one, I ask. I open myself up for small talk. Sometimes people I meet want to know about the world that I’m from, and I listen as they tell me about theirs. Because regardless of what someone does for a living, they’re a person—each with their own stories and dreams.
Some folks just want to do their jobs and aren’t in the mood to chat with guests. Maybe they’re too busy to care. I know I’ve had those days. But I have also seen that a thoughtful compliment can make somebody’s day. At the end of a hotel stay, I mention to the manager the people who provided impeccable service or paid meticulous attention to detail that went above my expectations.
Before I leave my hotel room for the day, I also write a few lines to housekeeping. “Thank you for providing me with a safe, clean place to stay,” I jot on a piece of hotel stationery, which I put on the TV stand along with my daily gratuity, usually between $10 and $20 on the days I request housekeeping. If I order in-room breakfast multiple days in a row, I leave compliments for the cook in the margins of the menu before I place my order on the doorknob. I don’t expect anything when I leave my notes and tips. This is just my way of telling the people I don’t see face to face that I appreciate them.
Recently, I found myself on the other end of this experience. After several days of leaving notes for housekeeping while on a mother-daughter trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I returned to our room one evening to a note on the bed. Stephoney, the person who serviced our room, had responded: “A happy and blessed holiday to you and your family, and all the best for the New Year.” It was a small gesture—one simple sentence—but I felt the warmth and humanity in it. It’s the feeling I hope others get when they see my messages. And for that reason, I’ll keep writing them.