An Honest Day’s Work

About a week ago in New Jersey, Trader Joe’s customer, Karma Lawrence, thought that one of the clerks working at the store resembled the affable character, Elvin Tibideaux, from The Cosby Show of the late ’80s and early ’90s. After a quick internet search, she realized it was in fact, Geoffrey Owens, the actor. Lawrence snapped a photo of Owens and subsequently submitted it to celebrity websites. 

Upon learning that the photo was going to be featured in an online story, Owens says he was “devastated,” contacted his 19 year old son to warn him about the story breaking (even apologizing), and braced for impact.

The internet, as we all know, can be relentless and unforgiving. But a funny thing happened on the way to internet viral-ism. Rather than being on the receiving end of a tsunami of ridicule, finger-pointing, and laughter, Owens received an avalanche of support.

Karma Lawrence received, well, a bit of karma. Her attempt to “shame” Owens backfired, prompting her to suspend all of her social media accounts. She says that she was on the receiving end of hate, nastiness, and someone even referred to her as “Karma’s bi***!” Ouch. Schadenfreude, as she learned, is a two-way street. She has since apologized. But enough about Lawrence.

What I love most about this story is not the thousands of people who rushed to defend Owens, albeit, that WAS pretty magical! It’s not even the fact that Tyler Perry offered him a recurring role on his Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) drama. What I love most is Owens’s response:

“There is no job that is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable, and if we have a rethinking about that because of what has happened to me, that would be great.”

This response reminded me of the countless times my dad said, “There is ‘honor’ in every job,” while I was growing up. I don‘t remember why he said it the first time, and I don’t remember why he said it the last time, but he said it so often, that it has always stuck in my head.

Owens’s response also reminded me of a little boy whom I met about twenty years ago in Gilroy. His name is Tesfaalem, a young man who emigrated with his family from a small country next to Ethiopia. (I believe it is Djibouti.) I got to know him during a summer school program I was overseeing at an elementary school in South County. During one of our early conversations I asked him what his dad did for a living. Tesfaalem was reluctant to tell me. In fact, he told me that he was embarrassed. Before I asked again, I told him what my dad repeated to me many times: “There is ‘honor’ in every job, and you should never be ashamed of it.”

Tesfaalem softly said these words: “My dad has a hot dog cart by San Jose State [University]. That‘s what he does; he sells hot dogs.”

Again, I told him that there is nothing to be ashamed of. We talked a little more, and I told him that I’d be visiting his dad soon — to try one of his amazing hot dogs. He smiled, and we left it at that.

Geoffrey Owens has been remarkably candid and honest over the last week. He’s even said that while he is not in a position to turn down acting jobs, he’d like to audition — like everyone else — to see if he’s right for a role rather than receive special accommodations.

On the heels of Labor Day, I think the Owens story is a perfect reminder of an honest day’s work – and the honor in it.

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