Walking the Loop: The Summer of the Little Green Cards

BY Marietta Gwathmey

A few years ago I walked the Loop handing out little green cards. Maybe you got one. You might have noticed a group of girls walking along smiling and calling out “Good morning” to passers-by when we noticed a disturbing trend  I’m way ahead of myself.

For you to understand my story I need to begin several years before that when I was walking the Loop on a regular basis with my neighborhood beach friends. I walked the Loop faithfully every day (except weekends) in the summer with a number of friends sometimes one or two sometimes five or more. There was Lillian Anne and Margaret — regulars and sometimes Margaret’s sister Louise joined us when she was in town.

We’d set off from our corner about 6:30 or 7 in the morning (yawn) with my husband waving goodbye from the upstairs porch. He prefers the newspaper and a glass of V8 to exercise. When we were five or six strong we made a formidable phalanx power walking — well sorta power walking — down the street. We headed north walking abreast down Lumina and then in twos when we got to the Loop.

Some of our walks were quite memorable like the time we came upon what looked to be an eviction from one of the condos on the Causeway. My my my — such a find but a sad one. There were children’s life jackets and swim trunks a beach umbrella a stroller(!) a very large flower container with a nautical motif and a boogie board. I am pretty much known among the crowd for my garbage picks — I’m a conservationist a recycler and a reuser — I just hate waste. “Waste not want not ” my grandmother always said. On occasion they’ll call to tell me there’s a beach chair on the curb or a table or a lamp. They just like to pull my chain.

Anyway back to the pile. My friends loaded everything up in the stroller and they made me push it home. We looked like a band of gypsies especially with the flower container strapped in the seat with the umbrella sticking out of it and the life jackets dragging along behind. One of the wheels kept falling off the stroller (and still does to this day) when we went over the curb so we had to stop frequently.

Lillian said she wanted the flower container which I thought was pretty ridiculous since it was beyond tacky but somehow it ended up on my porch (I think that was the plan all along) and no amount of cajoling would convince Lillian to take it back. I solved the problem by going to the dollar store to purchase the least realistic “permanent” flowers I could find and artfully arranged them. I knew Lillian would be surprised and delighted to discover it enhancing her porch the next day. Yes she was surprised. Delighted not so much.

Back to the disturbing trend: We began noticing as the years went by fewer and fewer people returned our “Good morning” greeting and we wondered what had happened to common courtesy between people who pass by each other in close proximity. I mean good grief even dogs sniff each other. (I said that in a crowded elevator one time as we rode up in complete silence.)

But gone are the days when gents tip their hats. They don’t even wear hats anymore for heaven’s sake; well yes ball caps which they don’t even take off in buildings or when they’re sitting down eating in a restaurant (a pet peeve of mine). But there was a time when people went out of their way to call out greetings to each other and more and more we were finding it a nonoccurrence on the Loop (or anywhere else for that matter).

As for us we are quite a friendly bunch. For one thing we have Lillian. Now Lillian can strike up a conversation with a cockroach. It doesn’t matter where you are if Lillian is within ten feet of you she’ll know everything about you within five minutes. Not only that she has never visited a single place on this planet Earth — and she is well traveled — where she hasn’t known someone and usually they’re from Hamlet her hometown. For a small town Hamlet must have a huge population and they’re all friends with Lillian. Anyway my point is our group is very friendly and we always said “Good morning” as we passed other walkers and joggers. Certainly excuses could be made for those with headphones who presumably didn’t hear us but those others– well.

A lot of times our walks ended at Middle of the Island where we proceeded to undo whatever good the (ahem) power walk had done. They had a feature on the menu called the Little Bit I think it was. It included a little waffle a little egg a little biscuit a little bacon a little sausage maybe a little scoop of grits or hash browns — something like that. Anyway since it was so little … you get the drift. Or sometimes we’d go to Causeway Cafe — Margaret liked the grits there and no wonder; they’re five parts cream and three parts butter to one part grits. Yum.

Margaret always brought her own Sun Drop or she ordered iced tea in a Styrofoam cup with lots of ice. She likes ice. Anyway we loved having breakfast and then walking it off on the way home unless of course we had a busy day ahead in which case we’d get our husbands to come pick us up. If we didn’t stop for breakfast some of us — well it was mostly Anne and me — liked to stop either in Port City Java which at that time was housed in Roberts Grocery or the Caf del Mar for iced coffee — half caf with Splenda and skim milk no guilt.

That’s when the brilliant idea began to take shape. What if we could convince a coffee shop to give a discount to walkers who showed us the courtesy of returning our “Good morning” greeting? I could just picture it: We would print up discount cards and whenever people responded to us enthusiastically we’d hand them a card that told them their courtesy entitled them to a 10 percent discount at whatever coffee shop we’d convinced to join our endeavor. I don’t think any of the others were really sold on my idea but I continued to paint the picture over the next several summers: people would be coming in to the coffee shop to get their discounted coffee which would lead to an article in Lumina News about the walkers trying to bring courtesy back to America. Then we’d be on the local television news then the Raleigh station would pick up the story and it wouldn’t be long before we attracted the attention of David Muir — he loves to feature anything to do with AMERICA — so they’d be flying us to NYC for Good Morning America. Maybe next would be Oprah Dr. Phil who knows?

I was so sure we’d take the country by storm. And people would once again be doffing their hats/caps (does anyone today younger than 30 even know what “doffing” means?) smiling at each other opening doors waving greetings being kind being gentle being courtly.

But I digress — back to the coffee shop. First we had to find one willing to support our plan — well my plan really. The others were not so gung ho but to give them credit they were tolerant. Port City Java’s people said they had to clear it with corporate but we never followed up. Before we approached Caf del Mar we happened upon a little shop on the other side of the Causeway opposite the Loop. It was called The Daily Grind and it was a precious little place with a side room furnished with comfortable chairs a TV and Internet hookups. The coffee smelled delicious and the owner happened to be there the day we stopped in. He had two other locations one in Southport I think and one in Surf City both doing well but the present location not so much. His biggest problem was that age-old real estate adage: location location location and this one had three strikes and three outs. A car going by was past it before it even saw the shop was there. And walkers took their lives in their hands crossing four lanes of traffic trying to get over to it. And it just wasn’t very noticeable. Obviously business wasn’t good.

So I said to this nice and very gregarious young man “Have I got a deal for you!” And I told him about the death of courtesy on the Loop and the 10 percent off plan and Lumina News and David Muir and Good Morning America and the whole spiel. He said he’d give a whopping 25 percent off if that would get customers into his shop. I couldn’t wait to get home and start printing up the cards. And I did that very afternoon. My children of course thought I was crazy but then they’ve thought that for years. They were tolerant as long as they didn’t have to go with me on the walks when I was passing out the cards.

My poor friends however I did not let off the hook. They all but groaned when I appeared the next morning with a stack of small green cards printed front and back. For some reason none of them wanted to join me in handing them out but luckily they were secure enough to walk beside me without embarrassment at least none they would admit to.

Our VERY first encounter right at the foot of my porch steps returned our “good morning” enthusiastically so he immediately got a card. We were off and running. I was already picturing the onslaught of customers hanging out at The Daily Grind turning in their cards and enjoying discounted coffee while the cash register cha-chinged the coffee house right into the black (high finance not being my strong suit).

But the onslaught of customers did not materialize and the cash register did not cha-ching and the black stayed red because our plan had two basic flaws: First the card said “25 percent off coffee.” Well who wants coffee after a 3-plus mile walk/run in 95-degree weather? We should’ve discounted any beverage and maybe added the word refreshing — though again location location location would still have remained a problem. The second flaw was the problem that was the problem in the first place: the disturbing trend. We couldn’t give out enough cards because not enough people returned our greeting. Sad isn’t it? What a sad commentary on our community on the South on our people. And then the doors closed forever at The Daily Grind. And we never even got to meet David Muir.

Well I don’t walk the Loop as much anymore since I’ve found swimming more accommodating for people of (ahem) a certain age but my friends do say the disturbing trend gets more disturbing every day. People are less and less apt to make eye contact much less greet each other. We’re all so busy and going so hard and fast and on our cell phones and worrying about our futures and what are we going to have for dinner and do I look fat in that? we don’t have time for greeting people or being nice. We Southerners talk about how diversity and the influx of other cultures is changing our own culture as people migrate south to enjoy our softer lifestyle and our warmer weather bringing with them their own customs. My daughter Clare who teaches in Raleigh says she notices very few children now say Sir and Ma’am and Southern accents are rapidly fading away in our cosmopolitan capital city.

So I guess the little green cards and our courtesy experiment on the Loop were up against a rock and a hard place to begin with. I’m not sure if niceness or what used to be known as genteelness will ever return to the South but I think we can all start with smiling more and scowling less. It seems to me that courtesy begins with happy countenances and that fact was brought home to me one day when I was driving through the New Hanover Center parking lot and stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross to the stores. A perfect stranger she turned and waved and her face brightened in a megawatt smile which absolutely lifted me up and made my day. I realized what a simple thing she did and that it made me feel warm and glowy inside. So now when someone stops for me I wave and smile as brightly as I can kind of like paying it forward kind of like passing out little green cards.