Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
A voice rose above the Muzak: "Don't touch my fucking stuff."
I was in line at Till #3. I work part-time at Grocery World, but that afternoon I was only a civilian, doing my shopping. At Till #1, a customer was yelling at our newest cashier, a senior citizen at her first job, ever, in her entire life.
She was holding a large tomato, apologizing to a small angry man: "I'm sorry. I had to read the number to type in the code."
"Write it down. Do your fucking job," he said angrily.
My two other female colleagues at their tills looked over and then looked away. I saw fear in their faces. It appeared their only plan was to hope this wasn't happening. Or, that it would die down fast.
Marg (I've changed a lot of identifying information for this story) tried to make a joke: "I promise I don't have cooties."
"I'm going to have to fucking wash this when I get home."
"Well, I hope you would anyway," she said.
"I don't need your fucking attitude," he said.
It wasn't dying down. He was getting louder. So I called over: "That's enough, Sir."
He turned to me and said, "Shut up, Fag."
So I said, "Out!" and pointed to the door.
He said, "Mind your own fucking business."
I said, "I work here. You can't talk to people like that in this store. Shop elsewhere."
He turned back towards shaking Marg, who was rapidly trying to pack all of his items into the box he'd slammed on her belt.
He said, "Put some fucking gloves on, you stupid..."
I picked up his groceries and threw them out the door. "Move along."
He came at me. I redirected his blows and escorted him out the door. I worked with adolescents in treatment, custody, and correctional services for years as a child and youth worker. I may be a fag, but I'm a trained one.
He appeared to be surprised at how quickly he'd ended up in the parking lot. He tried to wriggle back in, but I'm a large person. I blocked the threshold and said, "You're banned. If you come back in, you'll be trespassing and I'll phone the police."
"I'm going to phone the cops," he said.
"Do it," I said. "Make my day."
His rage-filled face took in my calm one. A second dragged past us in slow motion. He turned and left. He didn't stop to pick up his groceries, which he would have been having for free because I'd intervened before he'd pulled out his cash, credit, debit, or gift card.
It was a busy day. The lot was full. He wasn't tall. I couldn't see where he'd gone. Into some vehicle or other, I guessed. I hoped he wasn't merely gathering will power for a new assault. I left him to that decision and went back inside.
A customer approached me, an older gentleman. Most of our town is retirement age plus. At 60, I'm the youth culture. The man I'd escorted out was a rarity, a person in his 30s. I'd never seen him before. Strangers are usually tourists in from the city. They aren't famous for their manners.
"What happened?" he said. "I heard the ruckus, but I missed most of it."
"He was verbally abusing my colleague," I said. "And I hate that."
I choked on the last words. I was suddenly in great danger of sobbing.
"You did the right thing," he said and patted my back.
I muttered thanks with my head down and went back to my own interrupted purchase. The three cashiers were buzzing. Marg was giggly as a school girl. The other two looked grim and were mostly concerned about me. "Are you alright?"
When I was young and I was bullied for being gay, I would just put my head down and wait for it to be over. It was daily, throughout school. Humiliating comments, mostly, but I had my fair share of punches, kicks, and shoves. A couple of times, worse. Ignoring it—which was the advice I got from '70s-era-adults—did a number on my self-esteem, perhaps worse than the abuse. Ignoring your own worth gives yourself the message that you have none. But, I've learned stuff. And now, I think I have the opposite problem. When there's bullying, I see red and move in for the fight without thinking. The fact is, I'm an off-duty, part-time cashier; I have no right to throw people out or ban them from the store.
Giggly Marg said, "Aren't ya scared you're gonna be in trouble?"
"No," I said. But then I wondered if I should be. I looked around. The entire store was quiet; staff and customers were looking at me.
"I hate bullies," I said to the world.
On my way home, walking with a bag of groceries in one hand and a case of peach-flavored soda water in the other, I felt vulnerable. Cars whizzed past. I wondered if one would pull over and spit out an angry man, perhaps with friends or weapons. I resisted the urge the take the back roads. I'm done with that, I realized. Ignoring. Putting down my head. Changing my behavior to accommodate what's vile.
An SUV pulled up beside me. It was my manager, Abby. She'd driven after me when she'd heard what happened. If I was in trouble, I didn't care at this point in my life. This was a part-time job I'd taken to get me out of the house. I could find another.
Her face was red, but not from anger. She was upset on our team's behalf. I wasn't in trouble. Instead, she wanted to make sure I was okay. And she wanted to thank me. I remembered the previous summer, at the start of the Pandemic, we'd all banned her from working cash because she'd lost it at a rude tourist trying buy all the toilet paper in the store. She'd spent the rest of the day opening up all the packages and putting the individual rolls under a sign she'd drawn: 1 Roll Per Customer Per Day. With Roll underlined three times in red. And then, later, in small blue letters, if you absolutely do need more than 1 see Abby.
"You did the right thing," she said. "I gave the girls a break and put the stock boys on cash for a while—Lord, help us! But I'm worried about you."
I said, "I'm only worried the guy will call the police. After all, Abby, I basically tossed him out."
She said, "I hope he does. Then I'll get his name, and I can ban him officially."
People are sometimes surprised I opted to take this job as a cashier instead of restarting my psychotherapy practice after my mom died. I'd been caregiving for years while she declined from Dementia-With-Lewy-Bodies. But honestly, most days I've felt like this is my favorite job of all I've ever had. Because of the teamwork—the store feels like a family, and I need that feeling at this moment in my life—and because of the real, simple work that it is. Everybody eats. Everybody shops. At Grocery World, basic needs are met. During lock down, I was doing my PhD studies over zoom. I could go days at a time—Thursday afternoon until the following Tuesday morning—without seeing another face. Not a voice. Not a soul. Just me and the ghost of my mother. My happy time was popping over to pick up a few things at Grocery World. When Abby posted a Help Wanted sign, I applied, and now I work in my happy place. Whenever I've thought its time to return to psychotherapy world, I've talked myself out of it. I think: I'm a bit raw still, emotionally. I have so very little nuance. Problem? I will fight. I will cry. All the feelings of life are a millimeter under the skin. Ask the rude little man with no tomato. I hope he gets some peace, too. If only for the benefit of those whose path he crosses.
At home, I unpacked my groceries. I knew the shaking would eventually stop. I'd eat. And in a couple of days, I'd get to go back into the world, well-fed and ready.