Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kissing Ass

At Planet Care, the cashiers are subjected to all sorts of trials and tribulations that come in the form of customers with special needs and/or requests. Some needs are reasonable. A handicapped person needs a motorized shopping cart, for example. This is a reasonable need which the cashiers and book keepers are all too happy to accommodate. Some needs and/or requests are unreasonable.

A man told me not to tip his peanut butter, for example. I looked at him questioningly. He repeated his command, "Don't tip the peanut butter. I don't want it to get on the lid." He must have interpreted my confusion as insolence because he asked in a menacing voice, "Is there a problem?"

"No! No problem! I was merely trying to imagine an instance in which I might tip one's peanut butter!"

He doesn't want it to get on the lid? On the inside of the lid - not the outside of the lid. Because.....? It will somehow contaminate the rest of his peanut butter, this lid residue? It will somehow detract from the usable supply of peanut butter? He looks like he's going to hit me. I better hurry up and get this guy out of my line before I insult him further with my furrowed brow.

Then there was the woman who requested that one of the bookkeepers put on a pair of vinyl gloves - the kind worn by food service workers - in order to separate a bunch of grapes for her. She wanted only one pound. So she asked the bookkeeper to make exactly one pound of grapes for her. I watched my co-worker as she acquiesced. I wondered exactly how far we Planet Care associates are expected to step outside of our consciences in order to treat customers conscientiously.

I watched in amazement one day as a man bullied one of the bookkeepers. The entire population of the front end - cashiers and customers alike - witnessed this man's violent outburst. We were all stunned. But at the end of the day, he got what he wanted: attention.

This man comes in every day for lunch - Monday through Sunday. He is a senior, which in Planet Care terms means he is at least 60 years old. He's tall and wiry. While thin, his body is taut with muscles which look tightly wound, as if in any instant he will spring forward and wring your neck or beat your face to a bloody pulp. He has a heavy brow and an angular face - the classic Aryan. His face carries a permanent scowl-bordering-on-sneer. A line of tension traces his jaw.

I felt he was bad news from the moment I laid eyes on him. From time to time he has had minor outbursts of anger. Each time, I was fully aware of the ocean of rage that ebbed and flowed deep down inside of him. And I watched him with caution.

Sometimes his wife joins him for lunch. She is small, pretty, friendly - a bit too friendly. Her sweetness is exaggerated and makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me that she is fearful of her husband and is always trying to prevent any major outburst by being subservient and ingratiating.

From here on out I will refer to this couple as The Bully and The Jellyfish.

Several months ago after a customer invited me to attend Greensboro's Tax Day Tea Party, I decided to check it out to see if the Tea Partiers were as bad as the media made them appear. Not only did I discover they are as bad, worse even, than the media portrays them, but I saw The Bully and The Jellyfish there. While this did not exactly surprise me, it did make me a bit more uncomfortable around The Bully.

The day after the Tea Party, The Bully came into Planet Care wearing a t-shirt that said "Taxation = Slavery." At that point I decided this guy is definitely bad news.

Recently, The Bully came in for his usual cup of soup, salad and iced tea. He always looks for the shortest line because he can't be bothered with having to wait. On this day in particular, he headed towards the customer service desk to be checked out.

I observed the bookkeeper walking towards the desk. I observed The Bully walking towards the desk after her. The next thing I know, The Bully is shouting at the bookkeeper - who is a girl half his stature with precious kewpie doll features. Phrases like "This place is ridiculous!" and "I spend too much money here to be treated this way!" rose above the usual lunchtime din. All the cashiers and the customers began to notice the yelling. Everyone tried to ignore it, but it grew louder and more violent.

The bookkeeper stood tall in the face of his rant. She offered to give The Bully his meal free of charge. He became demonstrative and yelled, "No! I'm going to pay for the whole goddamn thing!" A piece of food fell from his plate to the floor as if to punctuate his statement. He kicked it and the service center desk simultaneously to add further punctuation.

At this stage in the game, the entire front end was silent except for the tantrum sounds emanating from The Bully. I looked at the customer directly in front of me. We were standing only a few feet from the action. My customer shook his head and said, "Now that's just ugly."

I am glad that there was a moment of solidarity between customers and cashiers.

The Bully stomped off to eat his meal in anger. One of his friends, another of our regulars, sat with him and seemed to calm him down. The bookkeeper was noticeably and justifiably upset. She disappeared to talk with the store manager about the incident which had just transpired. All the cashiers wondered what had happened to set this Bully off as we warily watched him sit in the cafe for way too long after finishing his meal.

I approached the bookkeeper in order to learn what had happened. Apparently The Bully had approached the service desk with his lunch and imagined that the bookkeeper went into the office - a closed-door-cubby-of-a-room situated directly behind the service desk - to avoid serving him. He thought she was actively avoiding him. And he short-circuited. Blew a fuse. Erupted, spewing venomous anger all over everyone within 100 yards of him.

Before leaving Planet Care, The Bully apologized to the bookkeeper. I watched this interaction very closely. He muttered an apology and the bookkeeper merely said, "Ok." He stood there waiting for her to play the role of his wife - to become subservient and ingratiating. But she did not. She looked him squarely in the eye and said, "Ok." He continued to stand there, looking as if he wanted to murder this lovely doll baby of a girl half his size and a third his age. He stood there until the silent face-off become too awkward for him to bear. And he stomped off in his cloud of putridity.

The Bully did not come to Planet Care the day after his eruption. But the day after that, he was back. And he has been back every day since then. Each time I see him, I feel my throat constrict with dread. I feel my chest tighten and my breathing become more shallow. I feel a fear and dread that became etched into my muscle memory when I lived with a short-fused, ill-tempered man. And each time I see The Bully, that fear is triggered again and again. It is irrational. It is stressful. It is unhealthy. But it is still there.

There is also a perhaps unjustifiable desire to not serve him. I have been lucky: he has not come through my line since his outburst. I haven't had to pretend like I was happy to sell him his lunch. I haven't had to pretend to be nice or helpful or any of the things that cashiers at Planet Care are expected to be to all customers, no matter how big of an asshole they are.

Once, I was aware of him standing in my line. I purposefully slowed my pace. I took my time bagging an elderly woman's groceries. I made a point of putting each bag into her cart for her and asking if she needed someone to help her to her car. I successfully drove him to another cashier's line.

It would be nice to own my own store where I could say to The Bully and others like him, "After treating my employee so badly, you are no longer welcome here. Thank-you for all your business. But good-bye." If necessary, I would call the police to escort him out. I would reprimand customers for bad behavior and deny unreasonable requests. Such as separating grapes with gloved hands. Or not tipping the peanut butter. Or kissing a mean old man's ass.

I observed one of my co-workers put on her metaphorical velvet gloves with which to handle a man who has proven himself to be a dick-wad in the past. After he left her line, pleased as punch at the sweetness that was bestowed upon him, my co-worker said, "I am so good at that!" And then she puckered up her lips and made a kissing sound. I agreed. I asked how she manages to be so sweet to such an arrogant and condescending racist/misogynist. She said it helps her get through the day. If she's nice to him, he won't be mean to her. If he's not mean to her, she won't get upset. And if she doesn't get upset, the day goes smoothly and ends happily.

I marveled at the matter-of-fact logic to this line of thinking. And I admired my co-worker for being fully cognizant of her dislike of a customer, yet being able to transcend her dislike and put on a pretty, sweet, slightly flirtatious face. All for the sake of getting through the day.

I admire people who have found little tricks to help them endure the unendurable. Maybe someday, I too will find similar tricks that don't eat away at my conscience and don't make me feel like a traitor to human dignity. Maybe I'll find a way to navigate the labyrinth of self-absorbed men of privilege who believe nothing and no one is more important than themselves. Maybe I'll learn to negotiate with ignorance and bargain with greed.

We can dream. As Blondie says, "Dreaming is free."

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