Reprinted with permission from Creators.
He was minding his own business (his employer’s business, more to the point), doing what he was hired to do at Trader Joe’s in Clifton, New Jersey — checking out customers without fuss or fanfare, bagging their groceries, sending them off with a soft “Have a nice day.”
One of those customers was certain that she recognized him. She looked up past celebrity photos of him to make sure it was he and then snapped her own photos.
A British tabloid published her photos under this headline: “From learning lines to serving the long line! The Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens is spotted working as a cashier at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.”
Fox so-called News published the photos, too, with this headline: “‘Cosby Show’ actor Geoffrey Owens spotted bagging groceries at NJ Trader Joe’s.”
Within minutes, it was all over Twitter, where thoughtful reflection goes to die. Oh, the fun. Post after post celebrating the apparent downfall of a fellow human being best known for his eight-year role as Elvin Tibideaux, the husband of eldest daughter Sondra Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
Soon, other celebrities started coming to his defense, sharing their own make-a-living stories between acting gigs. After Owens agreed to an interview with “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts, Tyler Perry tweeted a job offer.
Owens has continued to act, with TV roles in “Elementary,” “The Blacklist” and “Divorce,” among other popular series. But those gigs have never been long-term. In the “GMA” interview, Owens explained to Roberts how he ended up at Trader Joe’s.
“I wanted a job that I could have some flexibility, try to stay in the (acting) business. I didn’t advertise that I was at Trader Joe’s — not that I was ashamed of it but because I didn’t want the entertainment community to kind of decide, ‘Well, he’s doing that. He’s not pursuing acting anymore.'”
And then he said this: “There is no job that’s 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.”
Owens is talking about the dignity of work. When I heard his interview, I immediately thought of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. less than a month before he was killed. He was addressing a packed house of black sanitation workers and their supporters in Memphis, Tennessee. I have shared this excerpt before, in a previous column:
“One day, our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do this job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
Anyone who does his or her own shopping interacts with cashiers, and each of us determines how that’s going to go. I am too frequently reminded of how the rudest customers think no one else notices. I’ve long written that how we treat the people we’re allowed to mistreat is the measure of who we are. I now think that standing idly by whenever we witness such cruelty takes something out of us, and I’m not sure we can always get it back.
The woman who tweeted those photos of Owens says she now regrets it. “I feel terrible for embarrassing him,” she told Us Weekly, adding that she didn’t expect the pictures to go viral. She is getting her own share of shaming now and has deactivated some of her social media accounts.
This all reminds me of an interview I did more than a decade ago with Robert Fuller, a former college president and the author of the book “Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.”
In his book, he writes: “Why do celebrities so transfix us? Like us, they are nobodies in their private hearts. We scrutinize them hoping to catch a glimpse of their foibles and failures — and their nobody side. Their lives provide a constant reminder of the difference between the public persona and the private person — the somebody and the nobody — that coexist within everyone. By acting out their public roles while at the same time visibly suffering as ordinary people, celebrities … exemplify the human predicament and, in so doing, minister to our spiritual needs.”
Did Geoffrey Owens know he was tending to all of us when he gently turned his face outward and made no apologies for doing an honest day’s work? Who knows? I’m just grateful that he did.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.