I was grocery shopping last night at a major retailer who shall not be named (because they're also a major retailer who likes to litigate the heck out of anyone posting anything deragatory in association with their name), and as I was checking out I realized that the clerk behind the counter was being awfully nice.
This is where I confess my first piece of snobbishness - I rarely look at clerks and waiters.
It can be a real liability, particularly when I'm eating out. I often find myself asking my kids "Is that our server?" Truthfully, I have no idea. I didn't bother to look at a face. I'm pleasant enough but I smile up as my eyes stay on the menu. Like they're not worth noticing. And I have no idea why I do this. God knows I waited plenty of tables in my college years, and served eight years of a please-God-don't-let-this-be-for-life sentence in various big-name shopping mall retailers right out of college with that ever-so-helpful Theatre degree I had. You'd think I'd know better, but for some reason, I don't. I'm getting better at catching myself when I behave this way, but last night, I reverted back to old habits.
That is, until he complimented me and carried my one measly bag of groceries around the counter to personally place it in my cart. I looked up to say thanks, and realized it.
Oh, my God. He's flirting with me.
I can't be sure because I'm coming off a twenty year marriage and I really don't have much expertise in recognizing a flirt anymore. I'm reasonably sure it was, though. I digress.
So my first thought was "Hey, he's flirting with me!"
My next thought - and I'm ashamed to say it - was "Wow. What a great catch - a grown man working as a checkout clerk at this place."
Some of you might agree with that statement. Some of you may work at a store like that.
I used to be one of you.
You see, when my son was first diagnosed with autism, I was in the process of closing down my failed business and getting a full-time job back at my old employer, a very large corporation. Then suddenly I had this situation - a kid who needed loads of therapy, and a lot of it I had to be involved in early on. I had to learn how to work with him just as he needed to learn how to work with others. I envisioned telling my new boss at Really Big Corporate Job that I needed every Tuesday and Thursday morning off, to take my son to occupational therapy. And I needed to leave early on Mondays and Wednesdays, since his behavioral therapy ended after busing hours. I pictured me trying to work with him around my daytime work schedule and I knew that we'd be relegated to hurried sessions in the evenings, squeezed in after dinner and his sister's homework but before bathtime and bedtime. If I could manage it. I highly doubted it.
So I did what I had to do. I quit looking for my old corporate job in the cubicle in the building with the company cafeteria, gym and Starbucks on-site. I started looking in the local manufacturing district and factories for third-shift work. No luck. Finally, someone suggested the major retailer and the very store I stood in last night. I applied, I got interviewed, I got the job, and I started work two days later. From ten p.m. to six-thirty a.m, five days a week, I stocked groceries on shelves or worked the other side of the store unpacking shampoo or cold medicine all night long. I held that job for ten months, until it became clear that my marriage was over, and I needed to get that corporate job back with the great benefits. It was a hard ten months. Physically it was grueling, I was living on a few hours of sleep, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat for my kid. So would you, I bet. It paid off well. He's going into third grade in the fall, right on track with the rest of his class.
And for all my triumph and my return to corporate life where I wear nice clothes and work in a bright office with people who all dress well and speak all the right buzzwords - after all that, I still remember working those late nights in our 24 hour store, being talked down to by customers who are just like my coworkers now. I remember being embarrassed when I met someone new and had to tell them what I did for a living. Like I wasn't good enough. Sub-standard, because I was working in a place where my college degree meant nothing. Where no PowerPoint presentation could get the stock on the shelves faster, no spreadsheet could unload a stock cart or pump up a pallet jack. A place where manicured nails were useless and I left every morning stinking of dirt, sweat, and whatever I spilled on myself during my shift.
I used to watch those people going about their lives like I was nothing, and I'd think, "You don't know my story." And more, they didn't know Fred's story - he was battling cancer for the second time, his arms shaking as he lifted heavy boxes, laying with his head on the table in the breakroom. Fred was the same age as my Dad, but not enjoying a cozy retirement. He couldn't afford not to work.
They didn't know Pam's story - her ex was in prison and her kids asked for Daddy all the time because they missed him. And Missy - her kids didn't even know Dad. He skipped out when they were very young, and she left them alone in her trailer on the overnights, instructing her oldest (who was in his teens) to lock the door and sleep with the phone. She couldn't possibly afford daycare, so the night shift was her only option for full-time work.
I could fill a book with all their stories, and maybe someday I will. Some were there because they honestly thought it was the best they could get.
Because they believed it when people didn't look at them. They believed they were nobody.
I watched the salesclerk put my grocery bag in my cart last night, and I gave him a smile, looked right in his eyes and said thank you.
"You have a good night," he said.
I looked at his nametag.
"Thanks again, Mike."
He looked startled, and then a slow smile spread across his face. Maybe it was flirting.
Or maybe he just liked me seeing him as somebody.