I’m descended, on both sides of the family, from people who’ve never hesitated to strike up conversations with total strangers. On an airplane, in a restaurant or in line at the store, I love to chat with anyone who’s willing to chat back. That’s what we do here in the South. You might say friendliness is part of my biologic and geographic DNA.
So when progress ground to a halt one afternoon not long ago in the check-out line at Walmart, I smiled at the young woman ahead of me who had placed a package of envelopes on the conveyer belt and said something I didn’t hear to the cashier.
The young woman did not smile back.
I busied myself unloading the two dozen or so items in my buggy and put the divider behind the last item so that the man behind me could unload his things. We waited. Nothing happened. The cashier didn’t flip on the flashing light above her station. She didn’t put up the LANE CLOSED sign. We all just stood there in silence, shifting from foot to foot. Five minutes passed. Then six. Then seven. I studied the headlines on People magazine. I checked my phone for text messages.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Do you know what’s going on?” I politely asked the young woman. Maybe the cash register drawer was stuck. Maybe the credit card machine was malfunctioning. Maybe there was a big glob of Karo syrup on the conveyer belt. I’ve seen all those things happen at Walmart. Inquiring minds want to know.
She arched her eyebrows and, in a tone of voice I can only describe as haughty, said “We’re waiting while they get something for me.”
Decision time. Should I pile everything back into my buggy, disturb the man behind me and try to find a check-out line that was moving, or stay put and hope the wait would soon be over? The cashier, staring at the floor in an embarrassed kind of way, offered no help.
Three or four more minutes passed. I studied every item in the “As Seen on TV” display. I read the headlines on Soap Opera Digest. Then, in my friendliest voice, I asked the haughty young woman what she was waiting for. I did this for a couple of reasons. Maybe, if it was a close-by item like a rotisserie chicken or a bag of key limes, I could go grab it for her, though she appeared to be perfectly able-bodied. Even if I couldn’t help, I would at least know—for future reference—what items customers had to wait for in the check-out line.
Again, her eyebrows arched. Her upper lip curled ever so slightly. “Postage stamps,” she said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
My heart was hammering and, though I couldn’t see my own face, I was sure it was beet-red. I chided myself for asking the question. I hadn’t meant to be nosy. Just friendly. And curious, which happens to be part of the job description of a newspaper columnist. It never occurred to me that she might take offense. Finally, the cashier spoke. “We’re not allowed to keep stamps in the drawer,” she told me. “Someone from customer service has to bring them to us.”
So finally I knew why the wait. But I still haven’t figured out why the young woman had to be so hateful. Or whether I should try to curb my lifelong habit of striking up friendly conversations with total strangers.
(September 20, 2015)