Miles of Smiles
--by JZ, posted Aug 15, 2015
About 15 of us gathered earlier today to create poster boards that we would proudly hold up on busy street intersections of San Francisco. The posters would say simple things like "smile" or "smile anyways" or "spare a smile?" or "smile, it's free". We weren't doing this as a part of any organization but rather as friends and well-meaning citizens of the world.
After our morning creative sessions, we split up into teams of four and spread over various intersections on San Francisco's Van Ness Road. My team was at the Lombard intersection, one of the busiest.
For the first couple minutes, there's always that awkward question mark on your face -- "I am making a fool of myself?" But then, you realize that this is not about you. It's about delivering an unexpected smile on someone's face and the best way to do that is with a big fat smile on your own face. So, you look to your other friends at the four intersections, light up your face, yell "smile" at the car stopped at the intersection.
Hundreds of cars pass by. Truck drivers honk their loud horns, drivers point their fingers to the smile on their faces, mothers look at their kids who are quick to show their teeth, the tourists bust out their cameras for a quick photo-op at the red light, a family in awe remarks, "You mean, you're just doing this for no reason?", the bus passengers wave as if we're best friends, a twenty-something party crew pumps their fists in the air and yell "yeaaahhh" in unison, and old couple gives a satisfied look as if they're no longer worried about the future generation.
Time flies. Instead of merely holding up your sign, your feet start tapping to the music you can't hear, your poster starts swaying to the rhythm of the wind, and a very real part of you is leaping out to passerbys on the streets. No one feels like a stranger. And without absolutely any tangible reason, you are just plain happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh once said, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile and sometimes your smile is the source of your joy." Today, my smile is the source of my joy. No doubt.
Of course, the occasional driver will mock your sign, avoid eye contact, fake a smile, or look at your Spanish poster with a weary eye. But just then, another driver will get out of his sunroofs, from many rows of car behind the red light, to yell a congratulatory remark in support ... only to start a symphony of car horns at an unexpected rally for smiles on Van-ness and Lombard.
Being on the street like that, you start noticing all kinds of little things. You see that fancier the car, fancier their distractions; either they're busy checking their hair or putting on make-up or talking on the cell phone or just dazed in a sea of thoughts. But it'll be those beat-up Chevrolets with an old grandpa that will reach home and know how bright the sun was that morning and how old those kids were on the streets flashing unexpected sign of smiles. It'll be those humble drivers of the garbage trucks that look to you, honk and say, "Right on!"
Half way through, two unassuming pedestrians want to join us. One of them is a African American 12-year-old, with slightly disfigured mouth, named Shaw and another one is a skinny American guy named Mike. They're on spring break and are dying to tell people to smile. Kids, you see, have no qualms about their image. Almost immediately, they start flashing their poster, yelling "smile" on the top of their lungs and handing out flowers on the streets through open windows. Practically no one can refuse an invitation to smile from two super-animated kids who just kinda showed up out of nowhere.
When it's time to leave, all six of us huddle up but conclude, "Alright, five more minutes." We let it loose. One person is waving, the two kids are flashing the sign, another twenty-five year old girl is showing off her Spanish banner, and all of us are practically doing our dance of joy. Seeing the excitement, cars are honking their horns, people are responding to our energy with their own energy. Cops pass us with a smile -- they've seen this going on at so many intersections today! It is a party.
None of us want to stop, but we try to return to our maturity and head back so we can all share stories with other group members. Just then, the two kids -- Mike and Shaw -- innocently ask us, "Can we keep two of the posters?" "Why, sure. Here you go." We thought that perhaps they were just going to take them home.
But we were wrong. In a distance, we heard the unrelenting voices of those two kids on Van Ness and Lombard -- "Sssssmmmmile, Smmmiiiiiiile." We were done, but the kids are still going.
Miles of Smiles, indeed.