I’ve got a secret.
I can’t lift heavy bags and I don’t like asking people to do it for me unless they’re related to me by blood or marriage. I could spend hours reading psychology journals, self-help emotion guides, and other people’s blogs to try to figure out why but the truth is, I’ve always assumed it’s either because I don’t want to be helpless or I don’t want to be perceived as helpless.
At the grocery store this morning, a gangly cashier took the deli-packed ziplock of sliced meat and started to toss it from one end of the conveyer belt to the other. I saw the zipper open without benefit of slide and realized the bag had broken. I asked if we could get it repackaged, in my very best Year Without Complaining voice, trying not to imply any wrongdoing because hey, that would be complaint, now, wouldn’t it? He scowled at me and snarled, We don’t keep these bags at the cash register. At about the same time, the sacker asked if I wanted paper or plastic.
So there I was, caught between a complaint and a helpless spot, wanting my $7/lb bag of sliced rottiserie chicken to be safely ensconced in unbroken baggage and my food to be squarely packed in paper, double, medium weight. The tall cashier, who didn’t look all that pleased to have a job, was shoveling groceries down the line quickly engulfing the broken bag as though I might forget about it if he worked fast enough. And I’m thinking: Is this worth it? Should I ask again? Is that complaining? Is that being petty? Would he treat his mother like this? Am I taking this personally when I shouldn’t?
But all I wanted was clean meat safely toted home in a securely zipped Glad-bag. I asked again. He stopped working. We locked eyes. The sacker held his breath. We don’t have one here, he spat out, biting each word, barely parting his lips. I started to wonder if something had gone wrong in his life the instant before I cheerily sang out “good morning” and started unloading my purchases. The replacement of the broken bag suddenly seemed more important to him than it had to me, in the sense that he just did not want to do it, regardless of how simple a task it might be.
The sacker, who appeared to be about twelve, broke the stalemate. He nudged an even younger employee and asked him to run to the deli for a re-do. My cashier grudgingly let loose of the meat and resumed scanning my items, never letting go of my gaze, never smiling, never even relaxing his face. I wondered about the events of his life; I asked myself what made him so adamant about not making such a tiny problem right for a customer, one who asked nicely, one who even hesitated to ask in the first place fearing just the result that I got.
I asked myself if the very fear that prompted my hesitation spurred his unwillingness. Did we both fear the risk of human contact? Did we shy from the obligation that our exchange might raise? He helps me; I’m indebted; he’s responsible? That might have been. I contemplated this potential, while I slid my debit card, punched in the PIN and went through the litany of questions allowing me to pay the store without tendering currency.
I thanked him, then, in that Year Without Complaining voice, the nice voice, the one I learned in foster-mother-classes. I gently took my receipt from his extended hand, and wished him a good day. He never smiled. He didn’t speak. The sacker grabbed a couple of my bags and we headed toward the door. I sent a little prayer back to the cashier, just in case a good day might still be attainable. I can only hope.