Remember those episodes of Star Trek? The ones where Doctor Leonard McCoy– “Bones” to those of us who just LOVE the grumpy old Southern doc– would protest that “Damnit, Jim,” he was a doctor, not a fill-in-the-blank?
The last three weeks at work have been like that. It’s been crazy– we’ve all been one-armed paper-hangers in a wallpapering Olympics contest on crack, and it’s been utterly NUTS. I’ve also apparently had “ANSWER LADY” tattooed on my forehead in ink only others can see.
“Where’s the post office?” “How do I get to X?” “What’s the square root of pi?” (Okay, the last one might be a mild exaggeration, but barely.) I have been asked the most irrelevant, unrelated questions having NOTHING TO DO WHATSOEVER WITH BOOKS AND MY BOOKSTORE by a constant influx of people, and it’s been exhausting. Add to that, the people who treat us like we’re they’re children’s babysitters or their research assistants (because yeah, writing down the name of a book that you read about somewhere wouldn’t be a good idea, no, not at all) and/or then arguing with us when we tell you the right name of something (trust me, I know that the name of Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir is called Hitch-22, it’s RIGHT FUCKING THERE if you’d stop arguing with me long enough to just turn around and LOOK AT THE BOOK).
But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.
Babysitting and reprimanding other people’s children for bad behavior aside (I have used my Mom Voice of Doom more times these past few weeks than I care to think about (DO NOT RUN ON THE STAIRS, STOP IT RIGHT NOW, STOP RUNNING BACKWARD ON THE ESCALATOR, DO NOT MAKE ME LEAVE THIS CASH REGISTER, YOUNG MAN, OR YOU WILL REGRET IT are all words I have uttered, but it always does work, and the parents, they cower too, it must be the look over the glasses) what I wanted to talk about was this.
The bartender/psychologist phenomenon that occurs when you work in retail.
I’ve joked on occasion that we should serve beer. Or valium. Or both. The problem is, sometimes I mean it. The best we can do, though, is lend a listening ear. And there are days when I don’t have enough patience to do it, to be kind, to be nice, to dole out the smiles and compliments to the people who’ve had a bad day because damnit– I’ve had a bad day too, had to tell too many out-of-control kids to stop knocking shit over, had to tell too many snarky rich yuppies that no, I will not match Amazon’s prices and maintain my grande politesse rather than telling them to just go fuck off.
It makes my day when “Crazy Mary” comes in, for example. She’s a loon, seriously, lives on a different planet than us though she’s lucid enough that she probably has some harmless admin job someplace– but she has Grace with a capital G, always has a nice word to say. She never has quite enough cash, is always scraping her purse for her one-and-only-one book purchase as she compliments my hair or my skin on my necklace and the same with whomever else is ringing her out. You’d better bet I give her the coupon and the house membership discount I’m supposed to save for members having problems with their regular number. Mary was having a bad day the other day and was feeling her age, talking about “the menopause” making her hair dry and her face lined and making her ugly– so I told her, and meant it, that she wasn’t as old-looking as she thought, and that I thought she looked lovely because she had a beautiful smile. Damned if she didn’t light up the place like the sun. It was worth every other asshole who asked me to match Amazon’s prices that week.
And then there was my last customer Sunday night. Someone had taken a fist right to her nose, pounded the crap out of her face. Raccoon eyes, spreading yellowed bruises up into her forehead, down into her cheeks. It was brutal. She was tired– rattled, confused– and the bruising was a few days old. (Old personal injury lawyer training at work.) I directed her to the calendar section she asked for, watched her wander around, killing time, then she came back at the end of the night with her selections.
When I check stuff out, I flip the books face side down so the barcode’s face up, then hit them with my scanner– it doesn’t look like I’m reading the titles. So I greet the customer, talk with them about membership, stuff the books in the bag, make eye contact and talk with them as I’m doing my thing, all the while flipping my eyes back to my screen to make sure the titles are scanning. I can see the titles on my register screen. And this lady’s telling me as I’m making polite conversation about our membership program and the weather and our calendars (because “Hey, you look beat all to hell, can I look up the name of a shelter or lawyer for you, even with your Fendi purse and your David Yurman necklace?” isn’t exactly a great opening line) that she fell on her kitchen floor and it’s embarrassing to go out but she’s got to live her life, right, etc., etc., and yammering on for 15 minutes– long after the transaction is done. Meanwhile, the titles on the screen are glaring at me where she can’t really see, though her books are already bagged. They’re all about divorce, custody, getting out of abusive relationships. And she’s got bruised wrists, bruises all up her arms. She did not fall on her kitchen floor. I had a line of four other people, but I was not going to rush her– I just pushed the bell and had someone else (my manager ended up taking the call) come ring out the others– and I let the lady continue to lie to me as I made sympathetic-type noises and told her that it must have been painful, and she had a right to go out and keep living her life, and etc., etc. My manager was pissed that I was letting this lady go on– right until she walked behind me and got a gander– then she went back to another register and just started to ring while I let rich, beat-up lady talk.
And when she was done, she just kind of ran out of steam. So I smiled at her, and she said “I guess I need to pay you, hunh?” I smiled and nodded, we talked about a book she might need to order, she paid, and off she went into the night. I hope she’s someplace safe, reading those books and getting out of wherever she was.
Last night I wasn’t so patient. The minute I walked in the door, it was nonstop. I had 540 transactions, when I usually have 240-311. And we have an older gentleman customer who’s rich and a penny pincher (he always wants me to get him all of the coupons) and a bit of a pest– sweet on me too, since he’s harmless and usually gets out of the way when there’s customers to be served as much as he wants to talk about all the financial news of the day), but last night, he was in a hell of a state, I don’t know why– and so was I. He was needy as hell, and wanted attention RIGHT NOW, and I just couldn’t help him when he kept interrupting me while I was the only cashier and I had five other people in line all the time, absolutely nonstop. He didn’t want to be helped by the other managers, he wanted me, and it was just driving me nuts. I felt badly, but annoyed, angry too, because he could see I was busy and was being entitled– but maybe he wasn’t and really was just so distressed (I don’t know how old he is, not exactly, it’s hard to tell, and he does repeat stories as old folks like to do, so it’s hard to tell what’s early dementia and what’s just … old folks kind of stuff) but I just didn’t have any patience. I didn’t speak meanly to him, I gave him some recommendations– but I finally had to say to him– “I’m sorry. I can’t help you right now. It’s too busy, I have too many customers, you keep interrupting me, dear, I’m going to ask Other Bookseller W to help you.”
W, thank God, dealt with him with so much fucking patience, but he was really in need of so much damned hand-holding, and really, I wanted to slip him an ativan mickey because boy, did he need it. He was really out of it, on the phone with his wife (who’s ill with cancer, never leaves the house except to go to treatment at a local hospital whose cancer wing is NAMED FOR THEM, that’s how rich they are) and handing the phone over to me to have me tell her that X and such was a good book while I was trying to ring through other customers and it was just a damned mess. I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go out in the parking lot and chain smoke a pack of Camels. Instead, on my break, I had a half-klonopin and left it at that. And at the end, he calmed down, said W was fabulous, said thank you, etc., and I thanked him for saying so and thanked him for coming in yet again, told him I was sorry I was too busy to be able to help him myself, etc., etc., at which point he actually said, “I don’t like to see you working so hard, dear,” but at the outset, he wanted his own way right then and right away, and was an example in microcosm of the rich customers we deal with day in and day out– although at least he brings me chocolates sometimes that I can share with the rest of the store.
So no, I’m not a doctor, Jim. I am, however a bookseller. I’m also a babysitter. And a bartender. And a psychiatrist. And human. Sometimes, I’m awfully tired and cranky and not very patient, and I wish that that wasn’t the case and that I could be nicer and give you the compliment or smile or polite lie you deserve.
The next time you walk through a line at a store and see a harried cashier, please try to keep that in mind. I’ll be patient with you– or at least I’ll promise to try.