Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Mensch

Twisted, knotted stomach-ache tension. Repressed anger. Grief on hold.

This morning I awoke with a very strong feeling that I needed to call out of work. A mounting stress which has become unbearable has pushed me to the point of breakage. I considered all the ways in which stress disrupts the body's balance. I considered the delicate state my body is in on any given day due to cancer recovery and ongoing fights with an auto-immune condition no one seems to know anything about.

But today is Thursday - a typically busy day due to Planet Care's campaign to fight childhood obesity. From 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. children eat for free. And many people take advantage of this opportunity to score free vittles. I considered calling out for the first four hours of my shift and working the second four hours during peak traffic. But a bizarre sense of obligation often overrides my inner knowing. I proceeded to work despite my tenuous mental health.

I cried on my way to work. I tried calling my boyfriend for moral support, but my phone's service had been suspended due to non payment. I sighed as I realized that this was yet another manifestation of my inability to function on a material world level.

I proceeded to work, sniffling, thinking about how I would call my mobile phone service during my lunch break to make a payment and have service restored. This thought distracted me from the dread thoughts: the imagined conflicts and customer traffic jams I would need to face during the day, the inevitable sighting of and potential interaction with The Bully, the confinement to a small cubby in which I must stand for eight hours. I managed to allow the logistical planning of telephone restoration to supercede all fear and trembling, at least long enough to get me to work.

What is this intangible sorrow?

I arrived at Planet Care and felt very much like I was walking on shaky ground. I recognized there was no way to combat the overwhelming emotion I felt. I must simply allow it to exist and try to get through the day to the best of my ability.

Evelyn's death? I was not that close to her. But it seems like such a tragic undefinable loss. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and a collective sorrow re-lived? The flooding in Pakistan creating ripples of loss and tragedy? My inability to heed my body's inner knowing? My blind allegiance to the timeclock?

I found myself less tolerant of customers on their cell phones who refused to make eye contact or verbally acknowledge the person who is selling them their goods.

I collapsed with relief and regained a sense of hope and well-being when a Friend happened through my line.

I daydreamed about all the possible ways I could make money in this world so that I could leave Planet Care and all the stress it creates in my universe.

The customers piled up. Lines stretched out to the drink cooler and beyond. Where are the other cashiers? I decided to work at a deliberate pace, to avoid feeling pressured to speed up, to allow the line to lengthen if it must.

An elderly woman began to unload her cart onto the conveyor belt as I finished a transaction with another customer. When I shifted my attention from the completed transaction to the transaction-in-waiting, I was surprised to see not an elderly woman, but a man - a regular - with a bag of nuts. He made some comment to the elderly woman indicating he had a hot cup of coffee waiting. A bag of nuts and a hot cup of coffee compelled this man to ask this elderly woman - with breathing tubes in her nose and portable oxygen and cane - to allow him in front of her.

He acted as if this was ok. I decided to let it go.

I maintained composure despite challenges which come in the form of products that won't ring up, products that ring up at prices other than those indicated on their signs, the constantly ringing phone which cashiers are expected to answer. I continued being helpful and polite though not exceedingly enthusiastic about it.

The Thursday night mayhem began as parents brought in their children, tired and hungry from a day at school, dance classes, tai kwon do, piano lessons. With the rise in anxiousness to get food and eat food comes a general impatience.

I was ringing out a woman when another woman approached the conveyor belt from my right. Typically, traffic moves from my right to my left. Sometimes people come in "backwards" - that is to say from my left, which is fine as long as I am not helping another customer to my right.

The woman to my right began to unload her groceries onto the conveyor belt. A man approached from my left, passed the woman I was currently serving and got in front of the woman unloading her groceries. The words escaped my mouth before I stopped to consider the possible ramifications for uttering them:

"Did you just break in front of this lady?"

The man puffed up and said, "Well I don't know if you could call it breaking in front of her! She was coming from that direction, I was coming from this direction. I got here first."

Yeah, motherfucker, you got here first because you jumped in front of the other lady.

Fortunately for me, the cashier behind me beckoned the man to her lane. There were no customers competing for service there. He immediately jumped at this opportunity. "This works out better for me!" he said.

The woman whose transaction I was finishing said, "He was here first." I became confused. Her words did not match my experience of the moment. After she left, I spoke to the woman - who I perceived had been wronged. I told her that I had witnessed two men breaking in front of women today and it pissed me off. "They think they run the world! They think they're always right!" It was an overly dramatic response to some inner turmoil I could not yet define.

This woman simply nodded wearily, looked at me in solidarity and said, "Thank-you for being a mensch."

"A what?" I asked.

"Mensch is Hebrew for Human Being. It's a good thing."

I thanked her for this high compliment. I told her that was the best thing anybody could say to me.

A mensch.

This word energized me. There was an hour and a half left in my shift. I felt like I could last until that time. I felt like I had something positive to hold onto.

The word "mensch." Given to me by a mensch. A sign of Humanity in a world where Humanity seems harder and harder to detect.

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