How we keep going…

I was telling a customer this afternoon about some (just some) of the funny, eccentric, irreverent, sweet exchanges I had had with customers on just this one day.  He said, “That’s how we keep going.”  I felt totally understood.  I said, “That’s it – I’m going to write a blog post about this and that’s going to be the title, ‘How we keep going’.”  It’s probably true that “you had to be there”.   In the written word, none of these exchanges may be as funny as they were real time – and manic – but they may give you some idea of the kinds of things that keep us going, at Earth Fare and maybe at any retail job.

  1. The 65ish woman holds up the wrapped package from the meat department and playfully says, “I almost walked out without paying for this.”  I, more playfully, say “I would have chased you down and tackled you.”  She, with a big twinkle in her eye, says “Maybe I should do it.”
  2. The young woman, trying to puzzle her way through all the steps of the keypad, says ”I think I just screwed this all up…no, I think it’s going to be all right.”  I say “Everything’s gonna be alright.”  I break into song, “Don’t worry…”  She misses just three bars before joining in  “…about a thing” and we continue to sing, to reach other as, with her transaction successfully complete, she heads for the door “cuz every little thing gonna be alright.”  It was an exceptionally sweet moment – so perfect that, relating it here, I tear up.
  3. This guy picks up an item from the “impulse purchase” rack next to my cash register.  “Is this Spry gum good for you?”  “Everything in the store is good for you – including the Coca Cola.”  I love it that we consider the “Mexico Coke” healthy because it has real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.  Sometimes when someone is buying a bottle, I will hold it up and proudly proclaim: “It’s health food!  It’s got sugar!”
  4. This guy says “Your card is on our frig – I think my wife has plans to read your blog, maybe someday.”  I assume she has the card from this grocery store blog and give him the card from my activism blog (releasingtheforce.com).  “Here, you can add this to the collection.”
  5. I know the guy who hesitates with his cart at the head of my empty line.  “Are you ready to check out?”  “I’ve got to get one other thing.”  “Well your time is up – you have to leave now.”
  6. I know the six year old girl riding in her mother’s shopping cart.  As they pull by me to leave, she asks if I have any stickers.  “Gee honey, I’m sorry but I don’t.”  When they get several steps away, I’m moved to call out “I’m still a nice man!”  Without hesitating or turning around, she calls out “I know you are.”
  7. My shift is over and I am organizing my stuff at the front end to go home.  One of my colleagues asks, in front of several customers, “Are you going home?”  I say, “Yes, because I can’t stand it any more!”  It’s part play, part for real – and really kind of thrilling to say.
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More talking trash – BS primero

Here’s the most over-the-top piece of BS I have ever purveyed to a customer.  It’s up against some stiff competition – I do go on – but I think this is genuinely the most outrageous bit of craziness I have slung.

This young woman was having a lot of trouble finding her “Healthy Rewards” frequent shopping card in her wallet.  She was getting pretty frustrated – maybe part of me was just trying to take her off the hook.

“Did they teach you the song?”

“Song?”

“Yeah, the Healthy Rewards song.”

“No.” (What’s going on here?)

“Yeah, the card can get kind of shy in your wallet and the song helps it relax and come out.” (OMG, she’s still kind of buying it!  I can’t believe this.  It’s a little scary to be so far out over my skis, but it’s also a blast!)

“Really?” (This guy is nuts, but I don’t know how to get out of this so I’ll play along.)

“Yeah, let’s try it.”  By the time I actually wrapped my hands around her wallet and started to hum this little made up song, it had all gotten so out of control that I could barely take it.  Then her eyes caught mine and I knew that she had finally woken up from the spell – and we both laughed really hard.

Talking trash in the checkout line

I don’t know where I got my penchant for bullshit, but definitely one thing that for me helps the day go by at work is saying a lot of stuff that there is no way I mean.

My son was definitely on to this quality of mine at an early age.  I think he was probably ten, maybe twelve, when he heard me giving a line of shit to some friend who was buying it hook, line and sinker.  Now part of the joy of this shit-slinging is to make it so over the top that the receiver could really see right away that they are being teased – but to do it with such feigned seriousness that, unless they know this part of you, they still are sucked in by the story.  When I really had this person way out over the edge and they still had not fully caught on to me, Terry jumped in with lots of enthusiasm.  “No, he doesn’t mean it!  There’s this thing he does – he kind of hesitates a moment before he starts.  This is all made up!” (I don’t think he was openly using the BS word at that age.)

So the other day – the day before Easter – a 60ish female customer was checking out and I had just swiped a plastic container full of olives.  Her male companion teased her, with some background information that I – having no memory of either of them – knew nothing about.  (It’s a little trickier doing bullshit teasing with people you have no history with, but I was on a roll that day.) He asked her, “So do you buy olives every year on the day before Easter?”

I thought he may  already have been teasing her – maybe that’s what inspired me.  I jumped in and answered for her.  “Yes, it’s a Latvian thing” (a long dramatic pause to give them a chance to already catch on that I’m BS’ing, but they apparently were still on the hook: “Where is he going with this?”)  “Yes…”(“There’s this thing he does – he kind of hesitates.”)  “According to the Latvians, if you eat olives the day before Easter, you get good luck for an hour.”

It was the “for an hour” part that was intended to take it so far over the top that the jig is up. And the guy, bless his soul, was such a good little natural improv-person that he immediately gave me an improv “yes…and” response.  “So that would be a good time to buy lottery tickets.”  “Right, but you’ve got to do it within an hour.”  The woman was maybe a little slower to pick up on the joke, but by that point she was definitely following along – though I don’t remember her fully joining in with the fun.  But it was definitely a good time for all three of us.  And especially for me, having just risked some of my favorite kind of humor and had it work out.

Yesterday I was slinging some BS to a couple of co-workers.  Sepi and I had both worked at Greenlife, one of our competitor health-food supermarkets.  Sometimes it’s interesting or fun to compare that store with this one.  We were doing this.  One difference we have frequently noted is that Greenlife – for ten years now a subsidiary of Whole Foods – has more formal policies than our smaller 40-store chain.  I don’t know what got the three of us started on underwear – or in any way suggested that I could take the conversation in this direction – but I said in total apparent seriousness, “Well they do have a policy at Greenlife that you have to wear underwear, but we have no such policy here.”  Sheri Lynn, who has a great sense of humor and, even if she has only spotted the BS in the last little phrase, can pick it up and run with it said, “Well it’s a good thing we don’t have that policy here, because you would clearly be breaking it all the time.”

Sherri Lynn is a few years younger than me, but I moved from improv BS to reminiscing, “When you were growing up, were parents still teaching kids that you had to always wear clean underwear in case you got in an auto accident and they took you to the hospital?”  Sheri Lynn did definitely remember this, though I’m pretty sure if your audience got a little younger, people would just stare at you.

Ah, the things that help the day go by in the checkout line….

Making the world a sweeter place

I really am not giving up on this blog.  I continue to have wonderful experiences at the grocery store, some of which don’t have any obvious hook to the new blog – and I will want to write them up here.  But, honestly, most of my writing energy right now is going to “Releasing the Force: Activism with Heart.”

Here’s this morning’s post, which comes out of my shift yesterday at the grocery store and clearly lives in both worlds.

girl-in-grocery-line

Have you ever gotten to the checkout and realized you had forgotten something?  That’s what happened to McKenzie. 

“Here, take this – I want you to have it.”

Michael is a new cashier, a young guy – full of energy and dreams and promise for his future.  I think he’s in pre-med and plans to be a doctor. We were talking in the cafe  – me on my last ten-minute break, he (having started later than me) on his lunch.

Michael

Michael

“I was reading your blog the other night – I read it until 3 a.m., three hours worth.  So much of it spoke to me.”  This post is mostly going to be about concrete things people have given me at work.  I’m going to violate some time-honored writing principles by starting with the biggest one – this personal, non-concrete gift from Michael.  Michael was letting me know that my writing had given him gifts, but in the process he gave me one of the biggest gifts I could receive – he helped me to believe in myself.  He told me that my writing has value, can help people.

This post I’m writing here has been sitting dormant for two weeks.  Two weeks ago I wrote the barest outline – a list of several things people have given me at work, and maybe a few words about each.  (I can’t even find that outline now.)  But nothing has happened with it since  – I’ve written not one more word.  I believed in this post – I thought it could be really strong.  One night I sat down to try to write it, but it was 8:30 p.m. already and I soon succumbed to sleepiness.

But I came away from my really very brief conversation with Michael today charged up. “I’m meant to be writing! And that post is next!”  So here I am, having walked the dog after work (during which time I was writing this in my head), and now I’m at my computer writing.  No emails, no reading the Washington Post online – I’m writing.  Thank you Michael.  And I shall steer you Michael towards this post after it’s posted – and I think you may get some good stuff from it.

I’m going to start my list of gifts given to me at work with the oldest one and then work towards the present.  Some of these names (not Michael) have been changed to protect people’s privacy – or just made up because I didn’t know the person’s name.

( 4 years ago)PBR
Walter was clearly intoxicated.   But that didn’t invalidate his good-hearted generosity when he shoved at me one of the beers he was buying from me and said, “Have it – pop it open.  Let’s both have one.  You’re a good guy – I want you to have it.”  I obviously couldn’t drink a beer during my shift at the cash register, so Walter’s kindly insistence was really kind of comical, but it was also really kind of sweet – he wanted to share with me.

(2 years ago)hat and gloves
I was immediately drawn to Sharon’s beautiful red homemade knit hat.  When I expressed my appreciation of it, she said, “Thank you, I made it.”  “Wow, do you sell them somewhere?”  “No, I mostly just give them away to my friends.”  “Well I want to buy one from you.”  She took a breath as if considering for just a moment, then took the hat off her head and handed it to me – along with matching fingerless gloves (perfect for cashiering in a cold grocery store) she had in her purse.  “Here, I want you to have them.”  I protested, but she was very clear that she wanted me to have them, as a gift – and, truth be told, I also really wanted to have them.  I have taken a lot of pleasure in wearing them.

(6 months ago)

Andy beer

Andy’s favorite beer.  

Andy and Debbie have become friends of mine.  We had lunch together once.  They are not party people and don’t come to my  birthday parties – but we love our brief time together every Monday.  And I know that they care about me – when they ask how I am doing, they mean it.  They read my blog and know that my ups and downs are more ferocious than most people’s.  Andy has a favorite beer that he stocks up on periodically.  I’m on a quest to find out what beers I most like and was asking him about his.  He pulled one out of his grocery bag and gave it to me.  It was an effortless gesture – what you would do with a friend.  And it was also effortless to let Andy know later that I like his beer a lot.

(4 months ago)
Peter and Jessi are regular customers of mine.  They are young, energetic (rock climbers) and fun – and they did come to my birthday party last year, along with Peter’s kids Jack and Ruby.  Peter is a big, strapping young guy.  As soon as  Peter came through the door  one morning, he came straight over to me and said, “You told us you are going to move – do you need help?”  “Well, uh – sure.”  He flexed his enormous bicep: “I’ve got this…and a truck.”  I’ve probably told that story 20 times and I still laugh with delight – it was so perfect.

IMG_20171029_143458571_HDR.jpg

Peter, Jessi and their new friend, my Toni.

(2 months ago)
That new house, with two friends taking me in, was always meant to be short-term.  Six weeks later I was moving to my friend John’s house – also agreed to be short-to-medium term, maybe several months.  When Peter and Jessi arrived to once more help me move, I told them so apologetically, “John just called me.  He got a text from his landlord that he is selling the house – we have 30 days to get out.”  Peter paused a few moments before saying, “We’re going to have to just keep doing this until we get you settled somewhere.”  When two days later I saw Jessi at the store, she said, “That’s just who he is – generous.  He’s like that every day.”

(3 weeks ago)|
I didn’t remember ever seeing Mary before, but I was very personally drawn to her.  I didn’t even know just what I liked so much about her, but I liked her a lot.  When I went through my regular routine of asking myself what  I would like to validate about her,  I couldn’t even immediately come up with anything.  She was pretty, but that didn’t feel on target for a validation.  I just kind of irrationally liked her.  We had a sweet mini-encounter.  Nothing especially meaningful got said, but I felt good about it.  And then she was gone.Trilogy

And then three minutes later she was back.  She stood behind the customer I was waiting on, held up a bottle of Synergy brand kombucha, Trilogy flavor – my favorite flavor.  “I asked around what you might like and they said this.”  I was dumbfounded.  She gave me a huge smile and glided towards the door, looking at me and smiling all the time.  I raised my hands in a shrug and mouthed, “Why?”  I thought she enjoyed my confusion.

I think that part of what made that encounter, that act of generosity, so special to me was the very fact that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t think I had done anything to deserve it.  When, during my ten-minute break, I told a coworker about this scenario I added – in my attempt to  make sense of this – that the whole time I waited on Mary I was also thinking about my new roommate Lucy.  I was thinking about what validation I wanted to give Lucy next.  The one I had on the tip of my tongue was seeming too superficial and I was reaching for something more meaningful.  My coworker said, “That’s it – the whole time you were waiting on Mary you were standing in a field of love, and she felt it.  She became part of it.”  That felt and continues to feel really right.

(2 weeks ago)
chocolate ba.jpg
I didn’t remember Linda and nothing special happened between us – but I enjoyed the encounter with her.  The last item that I swiped and that she picked up off the counter and dropped in her grocery bag was a chocolate bar.  “Do you like chocolate?” she asked.  “Sure.”  “Chocolate with orange pieces in it?”  “Yeah”?  (Where is this going?)  She pulled that last chocolate bar back out and handed it to me.  “Here, I want you to have this.”  “Why?” (I was genuinely confused.)  “Because you’re awesome.”  (But why am I awesome?  I didn’t do anything.)  I indicated to Linda how genuinely happy this made me.  I didn’t comment on my confusion.  I think she got that, and maybe even took a little satisfaction from it.  (What does it mean to be awesome and why would she want to give me her chocolate bar?)

(4 days ago)
rose
When I got back from my lunch break, there was a beautiful rose (probably from our floral department, just steps away from the cashier area) in front of my cash register.  This time, along with a little bit of “Why?”, I more just accepted it – and felt really, really good.  Somehow having no idea who or why made it more possible for me to just let go of the questions.

(3 days ago)
Jose hat
I was sitting in the café, fussing over a predicament.  The next day I was going to a benefit “Sock hop” with a 50’s theme.  The family I was going with (Peter and his family) had all put together 50’s style clothes – and I had nothing, nothing that felt in any way 50’s.  As I was sitting there I looked across the café and saw my friend Jose from the meat department wearing a blue seersucker bomber cap – that looked to me like 50’s!  I’ve gotta have that hat!  So, in a move that felt to me bold and intrusive and maybe even inappropriate, I went to Jose, explained my predicament and said, “I’ve gotta borrow your hat!”  Jose immediately took it off his head and seemed positively enthused to loan it to me.

At the cash register that afternoon, at the party and at the cash register again on Monday (Jose wasn’t due in until 2 p.m.), I got so many compliments about the hat that I started saying, “Either this hat is really great or you just don’t expect me to wear anything cool.”  One of my customers said, “That hat is so you – you need to not give it back.”  I was almost ashamed to admit to myself that I really kind of did not want to give it back.

Jose cafe

Jose told me today that he would be glad to let me take his picture – if he could wear his motorcycle helmet.

When, on my afternoon break, I went back to the meat department to give Jose his hat, he wouldn’t take it.  “No, it’s your hat now.  It’s really you – it’s yours.”  I was both completely knocked out by this generosity – and also somehow not surprised.  It just fit with how I know Jose.

(Today)cookies - 11-15-117
Today when I came back from my break, there was a chocolate chip cookie in a bag at my station.  How did it get there?  Was it a “put back” – somebody decided they didn’t want it and gave it to the cashier working next to me, who then accidentally pushed into my area?  This seemed far-fetched.  I asked Megan, my podmate.  She knew nothing about it.  “Maybe you have a secret admirer.” “I think I have a lot of them.”

In one of J.D. Salinger’s books there is a character who describes himself as a “reverse paranoid – I think that the world is conspiring to make me happy.”  I think this is happening to me.

Affirmation and flirting

The woman checking me in at my primary doctor’s office was maybe slightly thrown off her game by my flirting, but I think that even more she liked it.

I told her I liked her glasses a lot, which was true.  “They have a different shape – it’s cool.”  I didn’t say they made her look like Catwoman, which also was true.

But even more, I played with her about her age.
“Have you been wearing glasses for a long time?”
“About 30 years.”
“Since you were 5.”
“Not quite.”
She smiled slyly – I knew she liked it.

WhadoIknow?  When I tease with women (and yes, often – though not as often – men) about their age, it’s usually kind of sincere.  I’m terrible at estimating ages.  This woman could easily have been 35 for all I knew.  I scoped her out again on my way out of the office later and I still didn’t have a clue.

But if I’m going to err on age with women (and sometimes men), I’m going to err on the side of calling them young.  At my grocery store, when a woman tells me she qualifies for the senior discount – if I genuinely think she looks too young, or like she might possibly be too young – I’m liable to say:
“Uh-uh…”
“No you don’t.”
“Not ’til you’re 60.”
“You must think I’m easy.”

If they ask if I want to see their driver’s license, I always say “Yes” – and they almost always seem to enjoy this little exercise.  You know they’re going to tell their friends that they got carded for their senior discount.

What’s the relationship between flirting and affirmation?  Flirting is playing and playing with someone is validating.  It’s a way of saying “I like you.”  Flirting is also a way of saying “I think you’re attractive.”  To indicate to a woman that you think they are attractive is not oppressive.

An exception is with drop-dead gorgeous women.  These women are more likely to have been oppressed around their looks – hit on, treated like an object, not recognized for their intelligence and competence.  They probably also already know they are attractive, so there’s no empty place to be filled here. With these women, I am more inclined to affirm them for their intelligence or competence, for their parenting or for their good taste in groceries.

If I can’t pull up those kinds of affirmations, I’m liable just to be all business.   This makes me feel a little sad – it feels like a loss, a loss of a chance to play – but it seems better than to appreciate any aspect of their appearance, even their glasses…or God forbid to look at them just a little too long.

Making flirting an affirmation is tricky – it’s an art form.  I don’t recommend it to people with clumsy interpersonal skills.  Doing it is an affirmation of my own intelligence.  And an affirmation of my connection with you.  It says that I know how to play – and I want to play with you.

“What makes you so interesting?”

The woman customer in front of me was maybe ten years younger than my 71, very attractive – and, for reasons I cannot really recapture, was immediately amazingly interesting.  I asked her, “Are you really tremendously alive?”  She got a little momentarily unglued – maybe a bit embarrassed by the strength of the compliment – but then quickly found her moorings and said, “Yes, I would say that I am tremendously alive.”

I found this so totally attractive that it took my breath away.  “She knows she is tremendously alive and is not afraid to claim it!  Amazing!”

Then I went to my most reliable provocative question for customers, “What’s been a highlight of your day?” – and for some reason I don’t remember her answer.  But then she asked me the question back – I knew she would – and I do remember my answer.  “My highlight has been this exchange with you – I just feel totally energized by it.”  I wanted to put everything I could behind this flirting.  I really wanted to be bold and ask for her phone number, but that felt like too much and maybe actually was too much.  I could have given her my card,  but couldn’t get myself to do it.  I just relied on lots of smiles and eye contact and a hope that sometime she would find her way back into my grocery line.  I really did trust that this encounter had power for her too.

And then she was gone.  I spent the next couple of customers trying to integrate what had just gone on.  Those customers probably didn’t get the best service from me, but sometimes it’s just like that.  The third customer, a couple about my age, I asked my “highlight” question.  They gave uninteresting answers and then failed to ask me the question back, so I basically asked it to myself:: “Would you mind if I vent a little about a customer before you?”  I sensed their mild alarm and reassured them, “It’s not a bad vent – it’s a good vent, just something I need to chew on.”  They ok’d the plan, but not enthusiastically.  So I told them about what an impression this woman had made on me, and how I was still rattled from it.  They thanked me for sharing and went back to talking with each other about their plans for the afternoon.  

But the good had been done – I had more integrated my experience with the “Alive” woman.  I want to call her Susie, even though that’s a pretty vanilla name. Maybe it’s really her name. While I was talking with this couple, I kept noticing that the woman right after them – a very attractive 40 year old – was nodding and smiling, seeming very connected with the whole story.  When the couple left and she moved directly in front of me, even though she had just a few items and there was a line behind her – restless because I had had a long conversation with the previous customers – I was struck by her big-time emotional availability and wanted to engage her, even if briefly.

“I was telling that couple about a customer before them who was tremendously interesting.  You are obviously very interesting.  What would you say is really interesting about you?” Now that’s asking a lot of someone in the supermarket checkout, given 90 seconds to respond.  But she fussed in embarrassment for just moments before she really leaned into her answer.  She lit up: “I’m learning how to smile with my eyes – it goes all the way back into my head.”  When she finished, she looked totally pleased with herself.  I gave her a big, “Wow, that’s awesome” and she was gone.  I hope she comes back through my line again, too.  

I took the next couple of customers to integrate that exchange – not even offering my “highlights” question, much less the blatantly intrusive “What’s especially interesting about you?”

The third woman had just a few items and I was inclined to let go of any attempt to engage.  But right at the end of her transaction, for some reason I couldn’t restrain myself.  “Don’t be a wimp.  This question has surfaced some amazing stuff.  Go for it.”  I asked her, “What’s especially interesting about you?”

“What’s interesting about me is that I’m really hungry and really in a hurry.”  And you know, it was just fine.  I thanked her for being so honest and focused all my attention on finishing her transaction.  

Trying to engage in these deeper exchanges in the checkout line is a crapshoot: sometimes it works and sometimes not.  Sometimes my intuition about where to offer deeper engagement seems right on the money, sometimes not.  But the game is totally worth it – otherwise you’re just swiping groceries.