Shortly before the holidays I was standing in line at Umpqua Bank, waiting for an available teller. At that moment there was just one teller working (a short-term staff shortage, I was told) and a customer was engaged in a seemingly endless number of transactions.

But I noticed this woman ahead of me was all business; she wasn’t taking up the teller’s time by chatting needlessly about non-banking stuff. So I relaxed and waited my turn. When the customer was finally finished, she unexpectedly turned to me and apologized for making me wait. I thanked her and said no apology was needed. But at no effort or expense to her, she had extended one and that was very nice.

In the midst of her busy day she had thought of someone else – me. She had offered me a little respect. In the days afterward, in the craziness of the holidays, I remembered her example. So when I was caught in some check-out confusion at Safeway, I turned and apologized to the folks behind me for holding them up.

Offering some respect, thinking of others, is an example of generosity and is in the same ballpark as courtesy and good manners. My experience with this pleasant woman at the bank got me thinking about the presence or absence of respect in our daily lives.

Few of our relationships outside our families are as intimate and intense as those we have with our health care providers. When those relationships end, confusion and tension can result. For a couple of decades, Dr. Kathleen Healey has been the preeminent ear, nose and throat doctor and surgeon here in the Valley. She’s had many hundreds of patients. But this year she decided it was time for her to retire this December.

Thus a few months ago, she wrote a letter to all her patients informing us of her upcoming decision. She suggested several of her colleagues for follow-on care. She was thinking of us; she was giving us some respect. That was nice.

Alas, not all of her heath care colleagues are so thoughtful. A few weeks ago, a popular local dentist also retired. Curiously, he announced his move not through individual contacts, but via a weirdly written advertisement in this newspaper. And he had no suggestions for future dental care. More than a few of us reacted by saying “huh?”

His dental group performed no better; they could have written us describing our options and profiling their other dentists. They didn’t do so; they simply didn’t think of us. That’s disrespectful. It’s also dumb; in this town we have many dentists to choose from.

Currently, one larger group deserving some respect are the water customers in St. Helena. As has been the case off and on for many years, this past month the taste, smell and look of our tap water has been awful.

If the water in New York City, our largest municipal water agency, can win blind taste tests for quality year after year, why can’t our little provider? New York City takes great pride in its water quality; so can and should St. Helena.

That’s a reasonable expectation, especially right now when our residential water rates have just shot up about 40 percent. We know that our payments are going to overlooked repairs and maintenance, but some attention needs to be paid to the water quality. Too many of us have for years paid what is in effect a hidden water tax by buying filtration systems and bottled water. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, no one drinks straight from the tap.

The good news is that we’re being treated with new respect by the city’s recently hired Utilities Operations Manager Felix Hernandez. He’s in charge of our water system. He may be a technical guy, but he comes across as a people person who will focus on us as customers and not rate payers.

Hernandez tell me that our water plant was designed to accept a key water quality treatment – powdered activated carbon – but that it had never been implemented. He’s changed that; on Dec. 22, the City started to use the activated carbon. That may make all the difference. He says it will take a couple more weeks for it to work through the system and for the desired improvements to be fully noticed. Perhaps it’s because he’s new on the scene, but Hernandez is clearly coming to grips with a longstanding problem.

The moral of these stories is that we, as individuals, agencies and businesses, can and should think outside and beyond ourselves. The cost to do so in time, effort and dollars is small. But the pay-off can be big, in giving out a little respect.

Editor’s Note: Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.

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