“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.

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Just that time of year

This is last year’s 10-minute Christmas poem edited down to three minutes.  I have a real fondness for that long, rambling Christmas letter of a poem – but I like this better.  It makes a lot of reference to my day job as a cashier at Earth Fare grocery store.  Enjoy.  Happy holidays.

Just that time of year…abridged  (Majo, 12/17/15)

It’s that time of year again
Jingle bells and all
But is there really all
That much to celebrate?
The cold and dark have returned again
Do pretty much the same time every year
I try to be cheerful about them
But this little whoosy man
Gets depressed with the onset of the shorter days
And pisses and moans pretty much the same
The whole winter through

The events in the world
Wars, gang shootings
Racial profiling and horrific injustices
Seem no better than ever
I want so badly to believe
That the human race and societies
Are somehow evolving
Somehow getting better, smarter
More fair, more loving
But can see no signs
That this is true

Everybody, it seems
Has their struggles and their sorrows
Caroling with the Jubilee group,
I realized that we were singing
Not just for the shut-ins we were visiting all evening
But also for ourselves
We – all of us
Need to buck up our spirits
At this dark time
We – all of us
Need all of us
To come together
To love each other
We – all of us
Need this poem
We – all of us
Need to create
Whenever we can
However we can
We – all of us
Need to hope for the future
For our writing and painting
And music-making
And our gardening and cooking
And parenting and love-making

We need to come together
As we are reading this poem
We are coming together
As all of us staff at my grocery store
Are serving all of our customers
We are coming together
As all of our customers
Rub shoulders in our store
Stand next to each other
In our checkout lines
Greet and often hug their friends
You are coming together
As all of us front-line customer servers
In all of the various stores
Serve all of our customers
Who, at other times
Are all of us
Who, when we are not working
Also patronize these other stores
We are all
Every one of us who deals
With customer servers
Coming togetherwinter-dark-2

We are serving our customers
Trying to put a smile on their face
Trying to put a smile on our face
Trying to get our customer’s needs met
Trying to check them out
Quickly and accurately
Bagging their groceries tenderly
Ripe avocados on top
Trying to exchange some pleasantries
And, when we are lucky
Even some meaningful exchange
Some “What’s been a highlight of your day?”
Trying to be real for each other
And to be kind
Trying, trying, trying
All of us humans trying
To make things work
To make this a better year
And when we are lucky
To love, even

Nothing upset but the shopping card

I’m not working today, but I’m right next store from my grocery store – working at my laptop on the porch of the new cafe next to us (and eating one of their terrific burgers).  From here I had a great vantage point to view a little drama involving some of our customers.  I didn’t recognize the three Latina females: a young woman, middle-aged woman and an 8-yr. or so little girl – but I recognized the contents of their shopping cart as being our groceries.

However, when I saw their groceries they were no longer in the shopping cart, but strewn around the parking lot next to the upended cart.  My attention was first drawn to the sound of the cart going over.  What was absent in the sound profile was any expletive (I think I would have recognized them even in Spanish) or any sounds of upset at all.  As they were surveying the mess, the little girl uttered an appreciative, “Wow!”  Her mom and grandmother didn’t say “Wow”, but they were so apparently unflapped by the situation and the girl’s comment that I thought I heard them saying, “This is interesting.”

These babies make a lot of noise when they go over - made even more distinct by the lack of sounds afterwards.

These babies make a lot of noise when they go over – made even more distinct by the lack of sounds afterwards.

As soon as the mother had righted the shopping cart, the little girl climbed on the side of it.  I thought, “Now here is where the anger shows.”  Nope, not an iota.  She did sho0 her daughter off the cart, in Spanish words that sounded more musical and even playful than irritated.  The grandmother lifted the first (very heavy) five-gallon water jug into the cart – then her daughter helped her with the second one.  Both of these women were very slender and short.  I made a commitment to myself last week to not mess with these jugs after lifting one into a customer’s car bothered my low back.

Then they gathered up their produce, putting it back in the two boxes it rolled out of.  The abuela picked up the carton of eggs and never even opened it to look.  I can only guess at her inner process: “I bet they’re fine”?  “What’s done is done”?

Any generalizations about another culture are risky – but some of them tend to be accurate.  It’s when we assume they will hold true for any individual that we slip into stereotypes.  I know that it would be a good day indeed when I would walk through a situation like this with so much poise.  There would almost have to be at least a “shit!” and maybe some real upset.  I want to believe that something in these women’s cultural background made them immune to crying over the spilled groceries.

“Sometimes a momma’s gotta do what a momma’s gotta do.”

The woman in front of me was tall, blonde, attractive even with her dark glasses – and about eight months pregnant.  One of her three purchases was a 16-ounce bottle of “Mexico Coke”: Coke made in Mexico with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup – the justification for selling it in this “health food supermarket”.  It was a new concept to me a few months ago, and I’ll acknowledge that I’ve had them three times in those last few months, twice on long road trips.  I rationalized that this was an experiment, to explore our product.  This rationalization held up pretty well the first time, and kind of well the second time – comparing Mexico Pepsi to Mexico Coke – less well the third time, having it during a shift in the store, just because I wanted a shot of energy.

I think that not too long ago you needed to go into a Mexican supermarket to get a Mexican Coke, but they are now present in lots of supermarkets. I still don't know why these colas don't have high-fructose corn syrup - and there is mixed evidence about whether they really are sweetened by sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup.

I think that not too long ago you needed to go into a Mexican supermarket to get a Mexican Coke, but they are now present in lots of supermarkets. I still don’t know why these colas don’t have high-fructose corn syrup – and there is mixed evidence about whether they really are sweetened by sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup.

I had judgments about this young woman subjecting her baby to all this caffeine and sugar.  My coworker Rex came along just as she was leaving and I allowed myself to vent.  “I hope that Coke isn’t for her.  I just can’t believe that’s a good thing for the baby.”  By that time Maureen (I saw her name in the computer a minute later, when she had entered her frequent shopper number) had come into my line and overheard the conversation.  She was black, 5’8″, maybe 30, gorgeous – and very willing to express her opinions.  “Sometimes a mama’s gotta do what a mama’s gotta do.”  I was taken aback by the strength of her position, especially without me asking for it.  But there was no hostility in her statement, just strength – and a powerful gleam in her eye.

I stammered, “I guess it’s better for her to be energized and happy.”  Maureen was just as strong in this response.  “It’s not about better – it just is.”  This time the Zen-like wisdom of her pronouncement was really undeniable, and I knew I was in the presence of someone who had insights well beyond what I expect from such a young person.  I never knew if any of Maureen’s wisdom on the topic of pregnancy came from experiencing pregnancy herself, though for some reason I projected not – but that this in no way lessened her authority.

Who am I to judge how a woman relates to her pregnancy?  I guess that it will be good for her baby for her to gentle and non-judgmental with herself.  And what about this young woman's choice to not ingest high fructose corn syrup?

Who am I to judge how a woman relates to her pregnancy? I guess that it will be good for her baby for her to gentle and non-judgmental with herself. And what about this young woman’s choice to not ingest high fructose corn syrup?

I did let myself do one little bit of research later in the morning.  When a woman came through my line who was equally pregnant, I asked, “I hope you don’t mind me asking a somewhat personal question, but what are your thoughts about consuming caffeine while you are pregnant?”  She said, “My doctor has told me that once in a while a little caffeine does no harm.”

I like to think of myself as a non-judgmental person, but then that’s a judgment isn’t it?

“Have you checked your eggs today?”

That’s the most stupid, useless, beat-off question I ask customers – and I do it many times in the course of an 8-hour shift.  It’s stupid and useless because most of our customers check their eggs – and if they haven’t, there is seldom a bad egg in the carton.  And doubly stupid and useless because it often interrupts a meaningful conversation.  So we go from a useful conversation to “Have you checked your eggs today?”

i did get one funny reply to the question, from a 40ish guy who said, “Not since my shower this morning.”  That pretty much cracked me up – and I think it was a highlight to my comedian customer to make me laugh so hard.

So, even though it’s mostly a useless exercise, I still do it because once in a blue moon there actually is a bad egg, but even more because it shows the customers that we care about the quality of their food.  They frequently will thank me for asking.

They may be answering my stock question, "What's been a highlight of your day?" and then I interrupt them to ask if they checked their eggs - it sucks.

They may be answering my stock question, “What’s been a highlight of your day?” and then I interrupt them to ask if they checked their eggs – it sucks.

For me cashiering is in part about making human connection with the customers – but it is just as much about the details of selling groceries.  Asking people about their eggs is very grounding – it remind me that what we are about is selling groceries, including helping people get those groceries home intact.

When I started writing this post about a month ago, I remembered that Alex, when he was breaking me in, suggested that I ask the question only if the customer has more than one dozen eggs – and for just one dozen to just go ahead and do it myself.  Somewhere along the way I got lazy and started to ask the customer all the time.  That’s part of why the asking of the question got so repetitious. Since realizing that a month ago, I have gone back to doing the egg inspection myself if there is only one dozen.  Occasionally a customer will fuzz at me, “I did that already”, but I’m projecting that mostly they feel good about me doing it.

I still am bored with asking the question, still amuse myself about the one wise-ass customer’s funny joke – and reassure myself that this is just good quality control.

The day the store was so slow that the cashiers….

The store was super-slow today.  Yesterday the weather forecast was for lots of snow overnight, so the store was a madhouse yesterday with people stocking up on the necessities: milk, bread, chocolate, wine sushi ($5 on Wednesday!).  There actually was lots of snow overnight and today everybody stayed home.  A couple of our cashiers were similarly snowed in, but even shorthanded we had lots of time on our hands.  So we used that time:

Sparring with each other over  produce codes.  Actually there was no real competition – just fooling around.  These kids totally blow me away with the nimbleness of their brains.  I hold on like it was the holy Bible to a laminated list of produce codes which I tape to every cash register where  I work.  Occasionally I will leave it taped to the cash register I have just left.  When I discover that it’s missing, I will sheepishly go over to Jessica, for example – who at that point has been doing the work for all of a month.  “Hey, do you want that produce cheat sheet?” “Nah, i don’t need it.”  And she doesn’t – they’re amazing.

So today I am for some reason saying some of this to the middle-aged lady I am checking out.  I shout across the way to Regina.  “Hey Regina, what’s the code for Romanesco cauliflower?”

Romanesco cauliflower (or romanesco broccoli) -wild and wonderful, a cross between broccoli and caulifower.  Everybody says it's quite tasty.  i was gonna get some after work today, but then had to run out fast.  Hopefully there will be some there tomorrow.

Romanesco cauliflower (or romanesco broccoli) -wild and wonderful, a cross between broccoli and caulifower. Everybody says it’s quite tasty. i was gonna get some after work today, but then had to run out fast. Hopefully there will be some there tomorrow.

We’ve been selling it for just a couple of weeks and you get less than one bunch a day.  I’ve got the code just to my right on another list that has been taped to our counter,  but want to show Regina off to my customer.  “94630.”  “See – she’s amazing.”

Regina said today that even she doesn't know how or why she learns the produce codes so fast.  It can be an item you sell once every couple of weeks, and she doesn't hesitate to spit out the code.  She's awesome - and a very cool person who adores children and babies and is great to work with.

Regina said today that even she doesn’t know how or why she learns the produce codes so fast. It can be an item you sell once every couple of weeks, and she doesn’t hesitate to spit out the code. She’s awesome – and a very cool person who adores children and babies and is great to work with.

But I had to find a way to pull her chain.

“What’s 94237?”

“94237?  Nuthin’.”

“Ha – organic bananas.”

“No way. Organic bananas are 94011 – it’s like the first code we learn.”

“yeah, 94237 is organic bananas too.  They’ve been coming across the last couple of weeks, just some of them.  Maybe they’re from a different distributor or something.”

That was fun.

The other way I amused myself today was bantering with Rowdy about his PA announcements.  Rowdy is a very cool, funny, creative guy with a huge heart.  All the staff and customers love him.  I’m almost the only person who isn’t entertained by his sense of humor in these announcements and I think I have genuinely hurt his feelings.  Today i tried to inject enough playfulness into our back and forth to maybe detoxify the exchange.

Rowdy is really tall and big in all kinds of ways. He makes a very strong impression and mostly a very good one.  He's good for the store.

Rowdy is really tall and big in all kinds of ways. He makes a very strong impression and mostly a very good one. He’s good for the store.

Rowdy, in a totally over-the-top southern drawl (he’s not southern), “Attention Earth Fare shoppers, produce you have a call on line 2.  Could the fine people in produce please pick up line 2.”

“Oh now you’re turning us into a totally hick store.”

“This is Appalachia – I’m talking Appalachian.”

“You’re talking like a redneck – they’ll never take us seriously.”

“I’m just having fun.”

“You sound unprofessional.”

Here I am criticizing a young guy who is committed to creativity and i’m taking a stand for professionalism.  I can’t believe my own ears, but his announcements really do bother me, if almost nobody else.

Rowdy makes another countrified announcements and I ask the customers in front of me, “Now what did you think of that?”  “I think it’s funny.”  “Yeah, most people do.”

But not everybody, at least not all the time.  One day Rowdy made one of his classic low, slow, breathy, stage whisper announcements.  Lou Anne yelled, “Rowdy, that’s creepy.”  “That’s two of us for creepy.”

I can get away with teasing Rowdy because he knows I like and admire him.  And today it was so darn slow, we needed the distraction.

Some more gambits around the discounts

Customer 1

  • Tall, slender 60ish woman customer says, “My senior discount is being cut to one day a week.”
  • Me “Yes – has anybody explained it to you?”
  • “No.”
  • “Let me try.”  I say something that includes stuff like, “It’s a fairness issue.  Teachers and students keep wondering why they just get one day.  Young people and single parents and nurses and firefighters ask why they don’t get a discount.  We’re not getting rid of the senior discount – and most of our competition does not have one.  Will you be able to come shop on Monday?”
  • This particular customer may have been a ringer.  She brightened right up.  “I understand. It’s alright.  I have no problem with it.”  There were others who were also this philosophical about a reduction in their discount – but not all.

Customer 2

  • Short, stocky 60ish female customer is next up in line, hears me telling the guy in front of me about the wisdom discount being reduced to one day a week – and our intention to try to keep prices low for everybody.  She explodes, “Low prices my butt.  I found a bottle of salad dressing that’s twice as much as it sells for at Ingles.  They don’t care about seniors – they only care about the bottom line.”  The intensity of her vitriol set me back – and I think also shook up the customers on either side of her.
    I wasn’t looking forward to a direct encounter with her – but she totally surprised me.  When it was her turn, she said, “OK, I got my bitching out of my system” – and was totally pleasant to deal with.  I may have been a wimp to not bring up the topic of discounts – maybe it would have gone fine – but i was happy just to have it be alright between us.

Customer 3

  • This big 50ish guy made the whole day for me.  When I explained about the military discount being reduced from 10 to 5% and going to one day a week – really a much bigger hit than the wisdom discount – he clearly didn’t like the news, but when he started shaking his bundle of swiss chard in my face he had a twinkle in his eye like he knew all this was pretty funny.  “I don’t like this – I don’t like this a bit.”

    It's not every day that someone brandishes a bundle of swiss chard.

    It’s not every day that someone brandishes a bundle of swiss chard.

  • Me – to the people right behind him in the line: “You saw it folks – he menaced me with those greens.”
  • The guy behind him: “I saw water flying off the chard right onto your glasses.”
  • The woman behind that guy: “I thought that at any moment it could move to direct physical contact with swiss chard.  Then what would happen?”
  • My upset customer: “Sometimes these big corporations just push you too far and you have to take a stand.”
  • By this point we all were having a good time, clearly entertaining ourselves and each other.

This scenario brought home a truth underlying this whole discount drama: at the end of the day, we are all just people playing out our various roles.  It’s a dance we’re doing together – at any moment any of us could play different roles in the same dance.  There really is not a them vs. us.  In a very real way, it is all just us.