Sunday, June 25, 2006

How I Accidentally Met Gloria Steinem

This story will be anti-climactic, I promise.

I work at a hotel, and at the start of every shift, I check the arrivals list to see how many people are coming in and whether any of them have preferences that will dictate which room I assign them to. On Friday, the list included the name, "Steinem, Gloria." My immediate impulse was to laugh, like it was somebody's idea of a joke. Then I assumed that it must be another Gloria Steinem, because certainly there is someone in the world who shares a name with America's most famous living feminist and civil-rights activist. But I said out loud, "Gloria Steinem?" The hotel manager was standing nearby and said, "Why? Who's that?" He'd made the reservation earlier that afternoon, but had no idea who he was on the phone with. (In fact, only one of my coworkers--another English major--knew who she was.)

The manager looked at the reservation again and pointed out that her phone number had a New York area code, so I started digging on the internet, trying to figure out if there was any reason the Gloria Steinem might be visiting our little town. The website for this week's writer's conference made no mention of her, but I knew the American Indian Institute was having some kind of conference, and all of the people in town for that were staying at the hotel I work at. So I typed something like "Gloria Steinem American Indian Institute" into the search engine. One of the results described a book by another of the hotel's guests, for which Gloria Steinem had written the introduction.

So I commenced waiting, impatiently, for her to arrive. I was afraid to take a bathroom break, because what if I had the chance to meet Gloria Steinem but I was peeing instead? I started steeling myself for the possibility of having to punch out at the end of my shift and just stay at work, waiting for her, because it would be ridiculous to forego meeting a cultural icon because my shift ended. I silently rehearsed what I would say to her, to guard against the probability of saying something completely stupid.

When she finally arrived, five hours into my shift, I recognized her immediately. She walked up to the desk and told me her last name so that I could check her in. I smiled and said, "Yes, I know." Then I did my job, carefully and professionally. My coworker, Amy, admired her ring, which she said was Bedouin and took off so Amy could get a closer look. After I directed her to her room, I said, "And...can I shake your hand?" She said, "Oh. Yes. Can I shake yours?"

I shook Gloria Steinem's hand.

I was impressed, pleased, relieved. Because I can't express how disappointed I would have been to find out that she was rude or self-important. But she was gracious every time I talked to her: when her suitcase arrived and I took it to her room; when I helped her with a problem she was having with the computer in the lobby; when I had to tell her, Sorry, there's no fruit juice in any of the hotel's vending machines. When she came in from the conference at about 10:00 last night, she smiled and said hello to both Amy and me individually.

I feel a little silly, making so much of meeting Gloria Steinem through no merit or effort of my own. I was really just doing my job, and she happened to be in the room. But it is a big deal to me, because someone who's accomplished so many important things suddenly became more than a black-and-white photograph to me. She became a real person who has made sacrifices to transcend all of life's requirements, and to make a difference.

It's probably too early to say, but this could affect the way I approach my own life, and my goals for it.


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