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.

When we have to wait….

Most all of us spend time waiting in lines – including those of us who work for a living serving  customers who wait in line to get to us.  When we are waiting in line, we may get restless, frustrated or irritated – or we have the option to use that time otherwise.

  • If we notice that we have gotten to any extent upset from waiting, we can have compassion for ourselves – forgive and bless ourselves in this hurting state.
  • We can welcome the waiting as a mindfulness bell. bringing us back to this present moment.  A fortyish guy who came through my line the other day said, “I kind of like waiting – it gives me a chance to slow down.”
  • We can bless our purchases.  This may be easier if we are buying something as positive as good food.
    • We can pay attention to the feel of each item as we put it out on the conveyor belt.
    • We can feast on the colors, sizes and shapes of the items.
    • We can arrange them on the belt in some way that is fun or satisfying for us.
    • We can picture these products giving us health.
    • We can be grateful for having the money to buy them.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

      We can use our time waiting to play with our food, like this customer did.

  • Whether or not we have a cashier who is liable to ask us “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, we can rehearse our answer to that question.  We can say it to our cashier even if they don’t ask.  We can ask them what’s been a highlight of their day.  If they have been under pressure with a long line, they may especially profit from such an injection of positive energy.
  • We can chat with the people in front of or behind us.
  • We can bless the cashier as we are waiting to get to them.
    • May they not be stressed.
    • May they be efficient and accurate.
  • This blessing of the cashier can be especially powerful when we get in front of them.  We can be a little bomb of positive energy.  Our smile and our words can be an invitation to the cashier to come out into the light.

 

When we don’t have access to any of these strategies – when it seems that the best we can do is to get frustrated and irritated – we can return to forgiving and blessing ourselves.