“I’m happy to hear that you are happy…”

“…because life is short.”  And she so clearly meant it – even though she struck me as too young to really get this concept.  I had asked her how she was – and when she asked the question back of me I replied that I was happy.  I surprised myself.  I knew I was a little manic and feeling good.  I knew that I was also grieving the death of my best friend just five days earlier.  Happy – interesting.

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger.  Was she stretching her comfort zone - maybe because I was encouraging it?  Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger. Was she stretching her comfort zone – maybe because I was encouraging it? Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

How old was she?  26?  Who am I to be deciding what kind of wisdom people are or are not capable of? She had a radiant, benevolent demeanor.  She was physically beautiful, but even more she was personally beautiful.  When she smiled at me, I felt really seen – she showed up with a lot of power, like there were no layers of self-protection.  She was poised and grounded, but also willing and able to really extend to the other, to connect.  I lit up because she was so lit up.  We have lots of cool customers, but some of them really take your breath away.

I was totally fascinated by who she was and how she got to be this way.  I think that young people feel that life will go on forever, unless they have had tragic death around them.  (My son had several suicides and car accidents in his circle when he was around 20 years old.)  I asked her, “How did you come to understand all this?” She said she worked on the farm her family leases, that she has two kids and a husband and some extended family around.  That she was from Mexico.  “I learned this from my mother – she told us that life is short.”  I think she said that she had not had deaths around – just that she got the concept.

I knew the truth that life is short because my best friend died last Saturday.  He actually had a good long life at age 86, but when his end came, it came so breathtakingly fast.  The ER doctor on Thursday said he had ten weeks left (dramatically shorter than the previous most pessimistic prognosis of one year, with his prostate cancer spread to his bones and his liver) – and then he lasted about 36 hours.  When the hospice nurse called me at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, I knew immediately what the call must be.  She apologized, “We usually try to call in time for family and friends to come in before the patient passes on, but he skipped some steps.”  It’s a truism that it was merciful for him: he was in a lot of pain and his proud independence would have suffered even more from becoming incapable to take care of himself.  It just wasn’t the right timing for us. (His son was en route from Ontario.)

Monty was a devout atheist until the end.  I wonder if he got any surprises.

Monty was a devout atheist until the end. I wonder if he got any surprises.

I felt so connected with Elena that I broached the topic that I was mostly reserving for coworkers – I told her about Monty’s passing.  Her immediate compassionate response touched my heart.  I have been in and out of being able to genuinely feel around this, but looking at the sweetness of her face and the love in her eyes, I was able to feel.  What a gift to give someone – to help them feel.  I’ve got a hunch that Elena helps the people around her feel the gamut of feelings.  I really do want to only want to be me, but part of me wishes I had grown up in her family. I always wanted a sister.

 Elena – I told you I was going to write this, and you said I could use your name.  Did I get it right?  What would you change or add?  Thanks for coming through my line.

My favorite firing…

Here’s my favorite experience of being fired from a cashiering job. (It was actually the only time I’ve been fired from a cashier job, but I’ve been fired from other jobs – two because I got hospitalized for depression – and they were nowhere near as much fun.) Fav because I desperately needed to get out of there and fav because I went out with a bang, not a whimper.

I had worked full-time for a year as a cashier in the little kiosk in the Enmark gas station on Merrimon – mostly closing shifts that didn’t get me out of there until 11 or later.  I had been there too long, but working 40 hours I just wasn’t finding time to job hunt.  When my genuinely cool boss, with mock ceremony, handed me my one-year pin, I erupted very genuinely with “No, not a year!  I was never supposed to be here for a year!”  He totally got the truth and the humor of this.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station - I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station – I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

My time on the meter had expired: I needed to get out of there, but I was not making it happen. So life helped me out – or maybe it was just my unconscious that put this last act in motion.

This woman was having trouble making her gas pump work.  I dutifully left the booth to try to help her.  But I couldn’t figure out why the pump wasn’t working – or what she had done to screw it up.  She became irate. “So I need to wait around here because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

To my credit, I kept it together for at least a moment, standing there in front of her.  “Let me go back to the booth and see what I can figure out.” Really, “Let me get away from you before I do or say something that I regret.”

But really it was already too late.  Looking back on the scene, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t pass Nancy, a friend from church, at the next pump – as I headed back to the booth – I wouldn’t have muttered under my breath, “Bitch!”

Under my breath, but still too loud. The bitch followed me back to the booth.  I locked myself in the kiosk, where I couldn’t actually strangle her.  She all but screamed at me through the window, “How dare you call me a bitch!”  What I did next guaranteed my firing – and I have never for a moment regretted doing it.  I planted my feet, looked her straight in the eye and said, “Sometimes it just fits.”  If I had left that out, she might not the next day have complained to a company vice-president.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny - and sometimes it's just perfect.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny – and sometimes it’s just perfect.

When I arrived at work at 3 p.m. the next day, my genuinely very cool boss Jim said, “I would never have fired you for this.  We all have our bad moments.  But my boss gave me no choice.”

So I got myself thrown out of the nest, which precipitated for me some anxiety, but mostly I knew that nothing was going wrong.  I actually came quickly down on my feet and found a better job.  And even if things had not worked out so well, I don’t think I ever would have regretted it.  That bitch was flat-out disrespectful – my integrity was at stake. I had to defend myself.  It was not the most elegant self-defense, but it was infinitely better than letting myself be run over.

I have yet to come across another front line customer server who is not thrilled to hear this story.  It was a great moment in cashiering.

Complaining to cashier supervisors

It’s a good plan to not settle for bad cashiering – that’s totally fine.  The next time you have the inspiration to complain about a cashier, though, consider an alternative.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”

Start with the cashier – reach out to them, embrace them.  Try some variation of “I know this is tough work.  I know a guy, a cashier in a grocery store, who writes a blog for other cashiers.  Lots of cashiers are finding this very helpful and you might too.  You can search ‘Real life in the checkout line’ or enter rlcol.com.  Here’s a card.”

If for whatever reason talking to the cashier doesn’t work or doesn’t seem like the right way to go, then by all means ask for the manager. but resist complaining about the cashier.  You don’t know what all went into their bad behavior today: they might be breaking up with their boyfriend, their dog might have died today, etc.  Don’t make their day harder.  Instead, say to the manager something like this:

” I’ve been reading a blog that’s all about helping cashiers do their very best – and providing support to them.  I want you to know about it.  I think you might like it.  I think your cashiers might like it.  Here’s the title, here’s the web address and here’s the card for it.”

That would be the most strategic way to help that cashier change – the way that’s most likely to cause them to shift their behavior, and in so doing to make life a little better for those of us who are dealing with them.

To get a some cards, email me at heymajo@gmail.com, give me your address and tell me how many cards you want.  Or I can tell you how to order them directly from Vistaprint, so you can have your own stash and hand them out everywhere.

Diamonds on the soles of their shoes

(This is reprinted from the Authentic Customer Service blog, http://authenticcustomerservice.blogspot.com/, that I published from 2009-2011.)

I think that tonight I came up with a juicy strategy for staying in a centered, present moment state at work.

I was telling a friend how much I want – starting with tomorrow morning’s shift – to find that flowing, peaceful state while I’m running the cash register. I knew what it looks like to be in that state, but at first had no clue as to how more to get there. Then out of nowhere a method presented itself: “I want to like them.” Yep, I want to practice – as much as possible – liking each person as they come through my line. This focus outside of me can, I think (we’ll see), pull me out of my self-preoccupation and get me to show up in the moment.
Then my friend made a suggestion that made this strategy more concrete and tangible and specific – that I think will make it easier to operationalize. She suggested I see my customers as having diamonds on them. Appreciating and liking them can be like harvesting the diamonds that they are wearing from the soles of their shoes to the top of their heads.
How do I get myself to like each customer as they come through my line?  I'm gonna picture them as having diamonds on them - diamonds that I will pick off them as we interact with each other.  Why not?

How do I get myself to like each customer as they come through my line? I’m gonna picture them as having diamonds on them – diamonds that I will pick off them as we interact with each other. Why not?

I can hardly wait to try this tomorrow.

My best buddy Monty (RIP 1/10/15)

Monty was an individual - his gift was being true to himself.

Monty was an individual – his gift was being true to himself.

Monty (Montague Sam) Berman has been my best buddy for 35 years, but we have not lived near each other for 30 years – until last June, when he moved here to Asheville after living in the same house in Ithaca for 15 years.  Moved here at age 85 (I’m 68, but Monty thrives on close connections with younger people), knowing no one but me.  Came here hoping that he would somehow get more opportunities to teach than he was getting in Ithaca – and that maybe we would get a chance once again to teach or lead workshops together.

Monty could be very difficult at times - and could also be full of joy.  He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life - and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other's sense of humor.

Monty could be very difficult at times – and could also be full of joy. He pissed me off more than anyone else in my life – and there were other times that we totally, completely got each other’s sense of humor.

 

Monty and I led men’s groups together 30 years ago, before they became so popular.  He loves to tell the story of the one group where he played the good cop and me the “shit detector”, who would call men on their shit when they weren’t being really honest.  That’s a lot different from how I had facilitated before – or ever again did after that group.  And maybe the last time this irascible and challenging character Monty ever played the good cop in a personal growth group – maybe that’s why it was so much fun for both of us, because we were each going way outside of our usual personas.

Monty was incredibly smart - and largely self-taught.  He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru - but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop.  He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly  he wanted the insights to come out of himself.  Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

Monty was incredibly smart – and largely self-taught. He was in many ways a kind of personal growth guru – but he seldom ever set foot in a personal growth workshop. He would read Fritz Perls and others, but mostly he wanted the insights to come out of himself. Even if something originated with John Welwood, he wanted to chew on it until it became his own.

When a new doctor asked Monty yesterday what brought him to Asheville, he said “My best buddy John”. (I’m still John to all my pre-Asheville friends.)  Maybe he moved here so I can help him die.  I have thought that thought several times since Monty’s lab studies and MRI’s over the last few months have showed his long-time prostate cancer to now be wildly out of control – moved probably to his bones, definitely to his liver.  The most recent prognoses have ranged from 1 – 1 1/2 years (his primary doc) to 4-5 years (his oncologist, who is very impressed by the new drug he put Monty on).  The new doc that Monty was talking to yesterday was the ER doc at the VA Hospital, who examined him, listened to his symptoms (a ferocious new pain in his side, which she thinks is bone cancer), went through all his records – and told him he may have just weeks to live.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life - and sometimes quite harshly.  And nobody has ever admired me more.  Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

Monty challenged me more than anybody else in my life – and sometimes quite harshly. And nobody has ever admired me more. Our relationship was sometimes a battle, but a battle between equals.

 

She referred him to the VA hospice unit, with a promise that if he gets stronger he can go back to his apartment (or maybe better an assisted living apartment).  Monty and I have a tentative date to run a workshop at Jubilee in February: “The Case for God”.  Led by Monty (a devout atheist) and me (a non-theistic mystic), I think it will be hot.  Let’s all picture him being strong enough for it.

Monty adding his own vision to the "Before I die" wall on Biltmore Avenue - photo taken August 22nd.  Monty said that he didn't like some things about himself - like how judgmental he was of others - but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty.  I don't know how he pulled this off - I couldn't - but I believe he did.  When he walked through that final door, I'm sure he did it with no regrets.

Monty adding his own vision to the “Before I die” wall on Biltmore Avenue – photo taken August 22nd. Monty said that he didn’t like some things about himself – like how judgmental he was of others – but that he never got down on himself for it, never felt bad about himself, never felt guilty. I don’t know how he pulled this off – I couldn’t – but I believe he did. When he walked through that final door, I’m sure he did it with no regrets.

I wrote this post Friday afternoon, but didn’t have any of my Monty photos in the laptop I was using so didn’t post it.  Monty died Saturday morning at 5 a.m. All photos courtesy of Maureen Simon, who very quickly brought forward and captured so much of Monty’s spirit and depth and aliveness – and who I think kind of fell in love with him, which was maybe why he let himself shine for her. 

An angel made me do it

Lucy was about 5’4″, slender, brunette, very cute – and apparently, in the state I was in, ageless.  I had just had a string of enchanted interactions with customers (1/7, 1/9).  I wasn’t thinking of her as the 54 years old that her driver’s license would reveal her to be.  So I carded her for the bottle of wine she was buying.  I am a lot more conservative about carding than most of my colleagues.  From my 68 years a lot of people look younger than they do to my 20-something colleagues.  When I was trained for this job, I was told that if someone looks under 50 we should card them.  And I know from experience that older women generally like being carded – but that’s never why I do it, it’s always because I genuinely think they look young.

Maybe an angel made me do it.  Lucy thought so.  She was obviously excited and touched.  “You’re an angel to card me.  A ways back I passed a marker where I thought, ‘Will no one ever card me again?’ This is the highlight of my month!” (“Wow, her month!”  Her excitement lit me up.)

OK, it's a macho angel - but hey, I can visualize what kind of angel I'd like to be.

OK, it’s a macho angel – but hey, I can visualize what kind of angel I’d like to be.

When Lucy left my line, I was excited by the possibility of offering a customer exactly what they need in that moment to heal an inner wound.  Obviously we can’t really know what that would be, but what’s the harm in trying?  The next guy up in my line was significantly short for a guy – maybe 5’5″ or so.  Does he have any issues with being short?  How could I possibly know?  But if seeing Lucy as young had such a positive effect on her, then why not see this guy as tall?  So I did.  I didn’t look up over his head, but I just pretended I was dealing with a tall man.  Why not?  Did it have any positive impact on him?  I’ll never know, but I’m sure it did him no harm – and it had a positive impact on me.  I gave him more respect than I might otherwise have.  I have a woman customer who has suffered terrible burns over her face and I practice seeing her as beautiful – and I trust that this is a good and useful thing to do.  Why not see this guy as tall?

Why not imagine qualities where there is no physical cue for what the person might be needing?  Why not smart? Brave? Loving?  I could just trust my intuition to pop up a quality that is useful for that person.  Why not?  It’s more fun than just swiping groceries.  I’m going to play around with it.

Our “Real life” community

Friends –

I am more and more thinking of the group of us who participate in this blog – in whatever ways we do so – as a community.  We may participate in different ways. Some of you read an occasional post; some of you gobble up each new day’s post; some of you see me in my actual checkout line, and maybe comment on that morning’s post and/or maybe become material for the next day’s post – by giving me a hat (my now trademark, hand-knitted by Caryl red hat)

I had been getting to know Caryl and her husband Brian in the checkout line. One day I told them of my shopping plans to find some furniture for my buddy Monty's new apartment.  They recommended a retail store called The Screen Door. They said the best day to go is Thursday - the next day, the day we were planning to go shopping.  We went and scored big - mostly furnished his place, at good prices.  They came in while we were there, which was big fun - they got to meet him, got to see some of his treasures.  The next time I saw Caryl in the checkout line I was admiring her hat.  When she told me she made it, I told her how much I needed a cool hat and that I wanted to buy one.  She demurred: "I don't sell them - I just make them for friends." As she was getting ready to leave, I once more made my pitch: "I want to buy one of your hats."  She paused just a moment and then took it off her head and gave it to me, with a big shit-eating grin.  Her beautiful, spontaneous, generous gesture made her as happy as it did me.  And she gave me the beautiful matching fingerless gloves, which came in really handy at the cash register yesterday.  This is what community looks like to me.  Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

I had been getting to know Caryl and her husband Brian in the checkout line. One day I told them of my shopping plans to find some furniture for my buddy Monty’s new apartment. They recommended a retail store called The Screen Door. They said the best day to go is Thursday – the next day, the day we were planning to go shopping. We went and scored big – mostly furnished his place, at good prices. They came in while we were there, which was big fun – they got to meet him, got to see some of his treasures. The next time I saw Caryl in the checkout line I was admiring her hat. When she told me she made it, I told her how much I needed a cool hat and that I wanted to buy one. She demurred: “I don’t sell them – I just make them for friends.” As she was getting ready to leave, I once more made my pitch: “I want to buy one of your hats.” She paused just a moment and then took it off her head and gave it to me, with a big shit-eating grin. Her beautiful, spontaneous, generous gesture made her as happy as it did me. And she gave me the beautiful matching fingerless gloves, which came in really handy at the cash register yesterday. This is what community looks like to me.
Head warm, hands warm, heart warm

or offering me chocolate or a hug, etc. Some of you participate by adding comments, which I treasure and work hard to reply to in a timely fashion.  Some of you may come to the mental health recovery presentation with me next Friday (which I promoted in yesterday’s post) – and maybe come out to lunch with me after, which would be a real gas.

I have other communities: the Jubilee Spiritual Community here in Asheville, the Asheville Movement Collective dance community, my Magnetic Minds depression and bipolar support group (and community – we socialize with each other, beyond simply attending meetings).  I see the staff in our store as a community – and our customers with us as a bigger community.

But the community of this blog – which overlaps with all these other communities – is really close to my heart.  You all are really close to my heart.  My writer is a really important part of who I am, so to have so many people reading and participating in this blog is kind of thrilling for me.  I have frequently, since I left the corporate world behind about ten years ago (organization development – at its best I loved the work, but at its worst it really burned me out), said that I have become the working class hero I was always meant to be.  I identify with my brother and sister cashiers and all front-line customer servers: fast food workers, restaurant servers, retail sales associates, cab drivers, call center agents – I’ve done all of these in the last few years but fast food).  I have a vision of this blog reaching more people, giving lots of non-cashiers an insider glimpse of what our work lives are like for us, and being a positive influence in the lives of other cashiers/servers, influencing the people who manage us, etc.   I’m talking with my internet marketing guru friend Jason Spencer about how to do this.

Big dreams, but a very big current reality!  You are my community – you are my people.  I hope that you will more and more feel yourself a part of this community.  Leaving comments helps.  Emailing me or talking to me in the checkout line helps.  (My regular hours are 10-6 W/Th/Sat, but you can check with me in advance if I am going to be there by emailing me at heymajo@gmail.com.)  If you think of anything I could do or something I could write about that would build the sense of community for you, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Power to the people!