I’m pulling up to the Schnuck’s at Grand and Gravois once again around noon on a beautiful August day. My feelings are divided about this, because recently Mike made me aware that Schnuck’s replaced all the union workers at their Bridgeton warehouse with nonunion workers. I have been seriously weighing this issue. But today, here I am on South Grand already right by this familiar shopping place, and I only have three items on my list. I know right where they are here, and the place is nearly always a learning experience.
So I get out of the car to go in. Uh oh, there goes my morning blood pressure meds stirring things up. My heart is beating hard. But I know this will pass, so I pull out and lock the car. I have to stop a couple of times, but finally I am entering the store. Beside the entrance there is an enormous black male security guard. He is minding his own business, but I manage to flash him an approximation of a smile amidst regaining my equilbrium. He responds with a hearty, “How’s it going, young man?” “Slow,” I reply.
I’m inside now and I head for the bulk spice rack for some nutmeg. The spice rack in my pantry that Stephen built years ago is almost entirely composed of Spice Island long glass jars. Now when a jar gets emptied, I just replace it with bulk spice, thinking to save money. This morning I notice that Schnuck’s wants $3.59 for an ounce of bulk spice. I warily drop the packet in my hand-held basket, thinking maybe I will, maybe I won’t purchase it. I’m going around the store picking up the other items with some assistance from a couple of employees: a half-gallon of milk, kitchen sponges. I also can’t pass up 6 oz. of blueberries for $1 when last week they were $3.99.
I also check the spice rack in the baking section of the store, retaining my suspicion about the nasty price for 1 oz. of bulk numeg. The Spice Island stuff is 2.1 oz., but the price is $7.99. The bulk package is a still a slight bargain compared to the more expensive brand. But now I check the Schnuck’s bottled spices. Sure enough, there is a 2.1 oz. bottle of Schnuck’s nutmeg, and it’s on sale, 3 for $5, or 1.66. Zingo, I just saved myself $6.33. I’m so annoyed at Schnuck’s price disparity—it’s undoubtedly the exact same spice—that instead of returning the bulk package to the spice rack in the produce section, I just stick it on the shelf between the nutmeg and the oregano.
I’m thinking I’m set to check out, and then, damn it, I once again forgot to retrieve my own shopping bags from the back seat of the car. I guess the blood pressure spike distracted me. But, I have thought all this through carefully. Everybody needs to recycle all the time, and that includes me. It isn’t going to save the planet by itself, but it has benefits for both the earth and for me. Once again, I set down my basket of items in a safe place and trudge back out to the car, get the bags, and come back in to check out.
I’m in luck today. Aisle 1 is nearly free, with only two other smallish orders in front of me. There’s even some space left on the moving belt to place my groceries. As I have been accustomed to doing, I settled in to observe and hopefully learn from the checkout process passing before my eyes. In front of me in the aisle are two African American women, both somewhere between 40 and 60 years old, both very obese, but mobile. The woman in the front has already been almost checked out, so I can’t see her order; it is bagged. The woman closest to me has a couple of small items and a very large package of whole chicken, no doubt the meal for today in her home.
Next, my attention falls on my checker. She is a small, trim Caucasian woman, possibly nearing 60. Her name tag says “Christine.” She is clearly tired, the crinkle lines around her eyes are prominent, yet even given these features, she is engaged and doing a good job. I think to myself how hard it is for a woman of her age to be spending 8 hours checking out and even bagging groceries. I also think about—with her still dark hair pulled back into a bun and her classic high cheek bones—how truly gorgeous she would look out of that work apron, dressed up to go out for an evening’s entertainment.
There’s been a little bit of confusion about mixing up an item on the two women’s orders, but now that is cleared up, and she is going out of her way to be helpful, polite, and friendly. She makes change with the first woman, gives her a warm, empathic smile, and wishes her a good day. But the black woman, for what ever reason, is just responding with a minimal amount of affect: no smile, and actually turning a bit away from the checker as she picks up her bag to go. Now it is time to deal with the order immediately in front of me. The woman asks for the chicken package to be put into a separate bag, and she immediately accomplishes that. This black woman is holding cash in her hand. It turns out to be two $5 bills and a few ones. Christine announces the price of $8.50, and the black woman hands her the two fives, receiving her change. All the time this is going on, it is clear that Christine is extending a warm presence. She concludes with “Have a great day, dear” and a smile. But this second black woman, again for whatever reason that is opaque to me, is not responding to the warmth, collects her bags and leaves.
Now I am feeling sorry for Christine. She has to work hard at a job that approaches drudgery, she’s tired, she’s trying to send a message of service and compassion, and the score is 2 strikes. This can’t continue, I think, I am going to give her a really big, warm smile when she starts to check me out.
But she doesn’t really turn to me. There is no warmth from her, no eye contact, although the service is still in place. I have placed my own bags in front of the small order. She takes one of them and wraps it around the handles on the plastic bag rack. It takes a bit of doing. I think, now I will get a chance to smile and say something nice. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, she says without giving me any eye contact, “Do you mind if I put it all in one bag?” “No,” I reply. She checks out the milk, the bottle of nutmeg, the sponges and the blueberries, puts the second bag in the first one with the groceries. Now we’re going through the credit card stuff, but still not a glimmer of recognition to me as a person. I’m keeping my cool throughout all this, I’m not taking it personally, although I don’t have a clue why she has transformed into this tired, icy bundle. I wonder some stuff. Maybe I remind her of some man that she has bad memories about. Maybe I look funny. Then I think, no, you’re being ridiculous. You just don’t know why. She puts the receipt into the bag, and as she is handing it to me, she finally looks at me, and says, “Have a good day.” But still, she sees me, but she does not go out to me. I reach down inside and pull out the best smile I can manage, and say, “You too.”
Now I’m home and writing about this. I guess there is a moral I’m seeing in the story, but it’s not at all the one I thought would emerge. People are extremely complex and very opaque the first time you meet them in a casual encounter. You can grin until the cows come home, but that’s not really going to give you much insight into the depths of a person’s soul. I have enough work to do just trying to find the depths of my own soul. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve just been swimming in my own bathtub all my life.