Ode to the Woman at Checkout
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” William James
I’ll start by addressing the obvious. This short piece is about how a woman who is a cashier at my local grocery store found a way to become part of my day to day. It was one of those strangers becomes loose acquaintance becomes learn a touch more about in 2 minute increments as she rung up my copious amounts of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Yes, I am likely romanticizing this because she is an attractive young woman. One that represents an exciting contrast to me in her neon color-streaked hair. It sadly likely wouldn’t make an article, nor cross my mind whatsoever, if it was a male. That is just how life kind of works. In romantic comedies. Before you go on though, it was not an age gap enough to be creepy and she knows full well about the amount of toddler pouches I was buying and the lockdown home-brightening flowers for my wife. I am not Joe from ‘You’. We talked about kids diets and playdates and how the store was my escape. Her being a cute, charismatic woman is just an added bonus and yes, it was just enough to pique the imagination. Disclaimer over, genuinely warm tribute hopefully to continue. What prompted this writing is she just got a new exciting bad ass big girl job and her last day is soon arriving. Cue the Cranberries song “Dreams” and lets do a proper Boston Irish literary send-off.
I think it is your typical pandemic backdrop that you’re familiar with. We all sat at home, bored and devoid of human contact outside our immediate family, who sadly quickly got on our nerves. Even the most introverted of us (me!) missed that interpersonal something more — the way you could do a good deed or get a smile or wave from a stranger. I imagine human contact is kind of like that rose in Beauty and the Beast. You need these small increments to sustain the basics and to feel alive. During lockdown, like several others, I got into cooking, flying in the face of my wildest dreams. It occupied time, provided structure, and forced a visit to the essential local grocery store for ingredients. In my last article I referenced “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace — more specifically the adaptation of the commencement speech in a produced video about the daily routine of life. He speaks about the ability to get outside your natural default setting of thinking solely of yourself and how people in line are “IN MY FUCKING WAY”! Being in line is synonymous to seeing the worst in people. Mouth-breathers on their phones. Or the enraging feat of finally getting to order after 10 minutes and not knowing what they want. Old ladies getting intimidated by touch-screens and then fishing in their 19th century purse for some coins for perfect change. Or, if at a convenient store, the guy in front of you buying lotto tickets that HAVE to be the exact birthdays of all his extended family. The speech attempts to force us to get outside our own heads, to realize that everyone has a story, and to realize that most people are just as agitated as you are. Accept the diversity and that everyone, just like you, is likely trying their best and hopefully is well-intentioned. Due to this video, I have always taken on a more aware, almost whimsically dramatic approach to grocery shopping, as if I’m John Cusack in Serendipity. Yet, except for love interest, its just genuine human connection. So, I guess not romantic comedy, more like heartfelt documentary.
Enter my girl Lilly. Its not as if I always noticed this one girl the way you do the hot librarian or the spicy barista at Starbucks. I mean at a grocery store there are twelve different cashiers. Moreso, this store seems to employ a cohort of twenty-something women, some even young enough to not be able to check out alcohol. One day, while in the dreaded line, I simply witnessed a beautiful act of humanity. A woman checking out appeared as if she was in the TSA line at the airport fresh from a breakup. Frazzled, apologizing to those behind her, trying to pull it together and move it along, eyes red and puffy. Out of nowhere, as if she did a Zach Morris time-out on all the commotion of the busy checkout aisle, the cashier stopped what she was doing, came around the counter, and gave this woman a hug. It was as if life went in slow motion and the music from “Fight Song” came on across the store. I was starstruck by the simple gesture.
A week later or so, carefully pre-meditating my lines, I specifically got in Lilly’s line and waited for the perfect moment to tell her how touched I was by the scene. It turns out she knew the woman and she had just gotten the news about something surreal that couldn’t even be dramatized on film, that her husband was recovering from brain cancer. The fact that she knew the woman and it wasn’t a perfect stranger you would think would discount her effort, but it didn’t for me. I think you needed to see how fast the current is taking you at the rapids of the grocery store checkout line. Any effort to stop it at the cost of several annoyed onlookers is simply parting the Red Sea.
As the weeks went on I purposely waited in Lilly’s line, even if it was longer. Several times other cashiers would try to wave me over to their open lanes and I would either pretend not to see or signal that I had a question for Lilly or something weak like that. I tried enough to say “oh she’s my friend” without raising eyebrows and creating small-town gossip. If I was in a hurry and did go to a different lane, I felt guilty. I would always try to catch her eye or wave. If I was feeling brave, I would go against the tide and backup into shopper traffic and say a quick hello. Our two minutes of conversation kept me going in lockdown. It was like my pandemic secret. A shot of dopamine in the middle of an incredibly long day. I already knew she had great emotional intelligence. I noticed how she was always cheerful and the girls who bagged the groceries would gravitate to her. I learned she loved Disney and had that kind of “Yes, I will wear a fucking Ariel the Little Mermaid t-shirt in my twenties and be damn proud of it” pizazz and individualism to her. It was simply unique and refreshing, someone I realistically would not be friends with outside of forced interaction but was lucky enough to know from the shared human experience. Since I couldn’t wait until December to commemorate my new friend, I got her a “Christmas in July” gift card. In the card I just tried to pen that she, perhaps unknowingly, made a difference for all in her row. Some other cashiers wouldn’t even look at you! “Have a good day.”
It almost became frustrating how quickly the two minutes of conversation went and how someone was ALWAYS waiting in line behind me. It was always pleasant topical conversation and yet the heavily therapized individual in me wanted to go a touch deeper. I could sense, the way she talked about the weekends and/or classes, she wanted something more in her career. She would always give me a knowing glance when on my depressed days I would say something like “Monday” or “I just can’t fake it today” or “going through the motions.” I always hoped this wasn’t a downer for her and yet she was the type that would never make you feel that way regardless. It was even a rush as the pandemic went on and we dropped masks; she could see my SWEET beard and I could see her kind smile. Just another simple way for increased connection.
I found myself wanting her to notice what was in my groceries. The migration to alcohol-free beer (was dying for her to be one of those select sensitive few that I could let in on the sobriety secret) or more challenging recipes. While this is hard to write as a “new writer” that could easily be judged, she even got to see my raw side, the side of which I am not proud. There was a day in October that I went in a touch more than buzzed up from having just played golf. In one of those drunk James Bond moments, when you think you’re being stealthy and smooth and yet everyone is likely noticing you, I actually left my number on a crumpled piece of paper while checking out. I had to go to some like hidden soup counter to even rip of a piece of paper and find a pen to use it, of which I’m sure that made for quite the sight on the security camera. I didn’t even truly do it for romantic purposes, even though when you’re drunk everything becomes romantic and/or desperate pretty darn quickly. I think I just wanted the cheap thrill of having a text from a new friend, or to feel the “winning” validation that she also thought of me as more than a customer relationship. I truly don’t even know if she saw it or assumed it was trash and threw it out. Lilly, if by some miracle you ever read the random graying hair guy from the store’s third entry on Medium.com, I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable. This moment and the guilt I felt the next time I stepped in the store was included in my litany of last straws of finally getting sober. I am writing this on day 40. I just wanted to thank you for everything. Congrats on your new job and while the Fruit Center may lose a sparkle I think your future is bright.