Lessons Learned Selling T-shirts

As sometimes happens in life, I was assigned a project that I didn’t volunteer to be a part of. I guess that occurs even more once you have kids and they have class parties and extracurricular activities, but it also happens in the workplace.

The organization I work for is participating in a national contest where healthcare facilities film a 90 second video and have to raise at least $2000 for a charity. We selected a local charity that supports women with breast cancer.

We decided our pillar for fundraising would be selling pink t-shirts. As a committee, we have taken turns selling, and in the past two days, I have spent approximately ten hours selling at different locations.

At first my ears fell deaf to the stories that flooded in from everyone who bought a tee-shirt. They all mentioned how their cousin, mother, or even how they had breast cancer. I knew that this is an important cause, and I could tell all of these people had been through a lot, but I still felt removed from it all. The next day my mindset was changed.

At one of the locations I have been selling at, my table has been set up at the end of the hospital cafeteria cash register line. The people standing in the line get to awkwardly stare at my display and me, and I get to awkwardly attempt to smile back at them from thirty feet away. I was all set up one morning before the lunch rush hit, and I saw a man wandering back and forth between each section of the cafeteria. His feet seemed to have a purpose, but his mind and stomach did not. He was walking around and glancing at the stations, but it looked like he was not really registering what dish was at each spot.

He finally picked up something in a clear clamshell package and made his way toward the cashier. As he stood behind two people buying what were likely late morning snacks, he saw my table in all of its look-at-me-now, hot pink glory, and the tri-fold poster that sat atop it. I could see him squinting to try to read what the poster said. I had drawn it up with an extra fat tipped sharpie marker the evening before, while memories of ninth grade science projects washed over me.

He paid for whatever was in his clamshell package and slowly, but deliberately, walked up to my table.

“Hello,” I said as cheerfully as I could.

“Hi,” he replied while barely casting his glance at me and continuing to read the poster. He was of medium height, slim, and dressed sharply wearing an ironed button-down shirt, tucked into denim jeans that were held up by a brown, leather belt. “What’s this all about?” he asked.

“We’re participating in a national video contest and the guidelines require us to raise at least $2000 for a charity. We’ve selected the Pink Ribbon Girls charity, are you familiar with them?” I asked.

He looked me in the eyes for the first time, “very familiar,” he said and gave an ironic chuckle. “My wife is upstairs receiving a chemo treatment right now.”

My heart sank. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said in the way you try to offer words that will never meet the need that is there.

“My wife may already have one of these, I’ll go back up and check with her, but if she doesn’t, I’ll be back down to purchase one,” he replied. “This is a great cause.”

“I’ll be here until 1:30,” I smiled and replied softly.

As I watched him turn the corner and walk away I felt the sadness of his situation fill me heavily, sandbagging my feet to the ground and dismissing any lunch pangs I had been feeling moments earlier. I thought about his wife, a few floors above me, sitting there hooked up to IVs, and I wondered if she was getting nauseous. I wondered if that is why he took such a long time trying to pick something out. I said hello to a few more people who walked by, sold a handful of shirts, and then I saw the same man walk past the check-out line and across the cafeteria again.

I looked left and then right, making sure I didn’t have a drove of customers coming, and then I left the table to enter the cafeteria. I saw him kneeling over the fruit and cheese cups with his back to me.

“Sir?” I asked to get his attention.

He turned and I could see he was on the phone. I could also see his eyes were now slightly swollen, the edges rimmed in red.

“Sorry,” I mouthed as I put my hands up and took a step backward.

He looked surprised but gave me a half-smile, threw his eyes in the direction of my table, and stuck one finger up in the air, letting me know he’d stop by in a minute.

I returned to my table and looked at the pink shirts in their neatly folded stacks. I had spent half an hour sorting sizes and folding them carefully to set out in a nice display. I smiled and said hello to the people walking past, and then I saw him standing in line to buy something else. I can’t remember what it is now. A pudding cup? A  bottle of water? We made eye contact as he waited to pay again and made an effort to give each other a half-smile.

He approached the table and I thankfully did not have a lot of time to think about what I was going to say.

“The theme of our video submission is Survivors and Patients: The Real Superstars, and we’d like your wife to have a shirt,” I said.

“Well thank you, but she may already have one.”
“We just started selling these yesterday, I don’t think she will. What size is she?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not sure, maybe a medium”

I handed him a medium. “Here you go, we want her to have this.”

“Thank you, I’ll take it up to her and will come back down to make a donation.”
“No,” I said. “She’s the reason we’re doing this. We just want her to have it.”

“Thank you very much,” he said. I could see the red rims of his eyes magnify behind tears that now rested in his bottom lids.

“You’re welcome,” I smiled at him.

“I’ll be back,” he said.

“No, I don’t want to see your face again!” I said, and regretted it a second later. I hoped he understood I meant it in a joking “don’t-come-back” sort of way and not in a mean and bossy way.

He threw the hot pink shirt over his right shoulder and smiled as he turned to walk away.

The day before I encountered this man, another man had come up to our fundraising table at a different location and told a committee member that he did not want to purchase a shirt for himself, but that he wanted to buy two shirts for other people.

The shirt I gave away had been paid for already. It had been purchased by someone, most likely a stranger, who knew that there was another person in the world that needed that shirt. He anticipated a need, and gave openly.

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P.S. If you want to learn more about the Pink Ribbon Girls charity or wish to make a donation visit http://www.pinkribbongirls.org/

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