“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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“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.

My blessings list

All day long at the grocery store, I ask people “What’s been a highlight of your day?” I breeze right past “How are you today?”, which tends to pull for a lot of bullshit.  If they beat me to the punch and ask me how I am, I give the obligatory “Fine” (which they are liable not to believe any way) and jump to the good stuff.

If they reflect my question as “What’s been the highlight of my day?”, I correct them.  “A highlight, not the highlight – you don’t have to figure out what was the biggest one.  Just pick any one of the little ones.”

Part of the point of this is to get us/me to focus on all these little ones – to notice that they are happening.  Another, less secular version of this is my blessings list.  I periodically wander away from this – forget to do it for months at a time.  Then a big blessing is that something brings me back to it.

Absent practices like this I become a little unintentional atheist.  My ego/mind takes over and convinces me that all is chaos, that I am alone and helpless in this big, uncaring world.

I can create my list in lots of formats: maybe my fav is here in my laptop, but I can also write them down in my little pocket-sized spiral-bound notebook or aloud as I drive home from work.  When my dog was still alive, I used to do this almost every evening as I took him for a walk – that was a juicy way to do it, because I was surrounded by blessings: being out for a walk, my neighborhood which I liked, the company of my dog who I loved.  I can directly trace the loss of this practice – two years ago, yikes! – to the loss of my dog.

This example, from my morning, shows how little these blessings can be:

  • Tuesday – 2/9
    • 67 biltmore – spotting that brochure just when i was trying to remember the name of the restaurant
    • google calendar – lots of good stuff, really apprecitaing my smartphhone
    • i get to get a new phone in July!
    • I can feel so good about something happening so many months from now!
    • making plans with the cortes family
    • Netflix worked – Kung Fu Panda shipped
    • a whole new world of Netflix! (I used to belong, but not for several years now)
    • I am having a very pleasant time at my desk thismorning
    • I made myself a nice breakfast

 

I am making plans to attend a meditation at the Open Heart meditation center here in Asheville.  Just thinking about this – and talking with Steve Swearingen and Bob Lantis, two friends who attend and are very enthused about it – has got me going back to two practices that massage my heart: my prayer list (which I resumed a couple of weeks ago) and this blessings list, resumed yesterday.

What’s going to happen when i crack the book Steve loaned me or listen to the meditation CD – much less make it to the actual center?!

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

Manic work

Cashiering is manic work.  You’re waiting on one customer after another.  You want to really show up for each of them.  You want to be alive, engaging, maybe even funny.  When I am manic, I am magic behind the cash register.  When I am down, I’m often really pretty lousy.

Until recently, my cashiering work has had no power to shift my down mood – if I arrived for my shift depressed I was depressed the whole eight hours.  But something has changed recently.  Several times in the last two weeks, I have gone to work a little depressed and over the course of my shift have moved into a little bit of mania – not a lot of mania, just enough to be functional in my work, enough actually to make me really good.

When I'm up, my checkout line can be an exciting place to be - fortunately, lately, not quite this exciting.

When I’m up, my checkout line can be an exciting place to be – fortunately, lately, not quite this exciting.

I can tell that it’s not true biochemical mania because on days when I am not working I immediately drop back into a light depression.  A light depression! A little bit of mania! You have no idea how encouraging this is to me!

The obvious next question is why – what’s different? I have a theory. I’m actually pretty convinced that I know what’s going on.  Let me put it in another post.

 

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.

Yes sir, no sir….

How do you address customers?  The practice is fraught with complications – enough that I’ll do one post on the dynamics between a man cashier and a man customer, and then another on the man with a woman customer.  There’s a whole nother set of complications when the cashier is female, which I won’t claim to be able to address.  (The fortyish female cashier at the gas station convenience store today called me “bud” – a first for me.  I liked it.) And there’s another set of variables if the cashier is young, which I am not (68).  And still another one if they are a person of color.  I think I’ll let them comment on that.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address ("sir")  with an older man?  Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

Is there more expectation that a young male cashier use polite terms of address (“sir”) with an older man? Probably so, and maybe especially in the South.

I tend to use the fallback of “sir” when addressing male customers,, but I like it less and less.  I don’t like it when or other customer service people call me sir – maybe because I wasn’t raised in the South.  It sounds too formal – and makes me feel too old, even when I am genuinely a lot older than the cashier (like most of the time).  It hurts my feelings a little “Can’t we both just be guys here?”  My son mostly grew up in the South. One lovely spring weekend we spent the weekend in a hotel with a pool.  His buddy Bobbie spent the weekend with us.  I pretty quickly prevailed on Bobbie to stop calling me sir or Mr, Madden and to use John (my name back then) instead.  Bobbie took to this right away and i projected that he found it liberating to break out of the formal mode of address.  When we were taking him home Sunday afternoon, however, he started to hem and haw his way through, “Uh, John, when you drop me off…”  I knew exactly where he was going.  “Do you want to call me Mr. Madden?”  “Yeah, my mother would have a cow.”

But I wasn’t raised in the South and – even after ten years here – being called sir doesn’t feel right to me.  So why do I use it so regularly with my own customers?  When I worked in the gas station, ten years ago, I made such regular use of casual modes of address (which I called buddyisms) – buddy, bud, pal, man, guy – that i wrote a blog post about it, (http://authenticcustomerservice.blogspot.com/2007/03/just-corporate-enough.html).

  • But that was a low-priced gas station – this is a relatively high-end grocery store.
  • Here my customers cover a socioeconomic spectrum, but tend to be middle class.  In the gas station, my customers again covered a spectrum. (I sold gas to the mayor.  One time she asked me if I would take a check.  I said, “Maam” – I did use a formal term of address – “You’re the mayor.”)  But my customer base was more tilted towards working class folks.
  • There much of the time I worked alone.  Here there are always supervisors around.  You can’t predict when the store manager will be right behind you.
  • In the interim since the gas station, I have worked in several other more formal situations where buddyism’s would have been frowned on: two upscale resorts, one upscale hotel, a telephone call center,
Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a "retirement job".  In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

Male cashiers tend to be young, in school, or else this is a “retirement job”. In their middle years they seek more lucrative jobs; if they stay with the store, they tend to get promoted.

As I write about this, I am more inclined to move away from the formal terms of address (sir, mister) and towards buddyisms.  I realize that I have actually been moving in this direction, but not enough for me.  I want to experiment with this and see how it goes.  It does seem that the men with whom I do it tend to like it.

I will follow my intuition around when to stick with sir or mister.  This will include men of color and  very old white men. Having written this two days ago, I discovered that with a young black man I wanted to go to buddyisms. It’s all a big experiment here. I’ll plan to keep you posted.