I live in a small town outside Boston which is surrounded by much cooler and wealthier towns. There are lots of old mills and things everywhere that, in other towns, they’ve renovated into amazing corporate lofts and things. Whole Foods towns. You know.
Mine? Not so much. Our old mills are still just old mills. My town has been kind of hesitant to change, but over the last year, there have been some amazing improvements happening. New award-winning restaurants and cool little shops and things. New schools are being built. They’ve converted broken, unused railroad tracks into a paved, dedicated bike trail network. In 30 years this town will be great. But for now, it’s still a battle between the way it was and the way it could be.
So last night, when I popped in to the local supermarche to grab a few things for the week, I was psyched when I got to checkout and the young female bagger stationed at the end of the conveyor had funky hair. I noticed it. Our town has always been pretty conservative and that kind of punk rock hairdo would always have attracted the wrong attention. So I thought “that’s cool. Not only that no one is hassling her about it, but that she feels like she wants to bother with it in this ass-backwards place.”
You see more Trump signs in my town than other towns, unfortunately.
So I didn’t give it another thought. Just kind of started loading my groceries and a few coupons on the conveyor and pulled my wallet out. Just to be ready. It drives me crazy when people check out at any store and then when they receive a total they’re shocked that they have to actually pay. Like “oh! Oh yeah, right!”
Just be ready, people. Sheesh.
So my groceries are quickly scanned by a nice older woman with an Eastern European accent and dutifully popped onto the other belt where the woman with funky hair bags them up. I’ve had this checkout lady before and she’s always been nice. And competent. Go to any store enough and you’ll get a sense about which cashier understands the system — rain checks, pay by check, food stamps or what have you — and which ones stare at their register like the great mysteries of the universe are manifest in it if someone goes off-book and, say, asks to pay with a gift card or something.
So far so good. The cashier doesn’t have to ask me if I have a store card because I’m already holding it out, extended, UPC code facing her so she can scan it. Total before scan: $134.40. BEEP. She scans it and my total goes to $102.60. I’m proud of my savings as I insert my chip card into the reader without having to be prompted. It’s smooth. This is all smooth. I’m an elite checkouter.
And then both the cashier and I look down toward the funky-haired bagger and she’s standing with her arms crossed and there are a few items she’s left on the metal area in front of her.
The cashier looks at me sheepishly and then back at the funky-haired bagger.
“I’m not touching that.” Says the funky-haired bagger.
“What?” Asks the Eastern European Cashier Lady. Politely.
“I can’t touch that.” she says.
“Because I can’t, okay?” Says the woman, with a bunch of attitude.
“Um…I don’t understand,” says the cashier. “Do you need a special certification for meat and fish to handle that or something?” She’s nice, but there’s an edge to her voice. There are three people behind me in line, waiting.
“No,” the bagger says.
“Well, then I don’t understand.” Says the cashier. “Everyone else here at the store can bag everything but some things you can’t bag?” Now she’s clearly irritated. Mostly because of the tone the woman has adopted. She’s not bagging, and she’s also not explaining. The cashier is probably in her fifties. It’s 8:40 at night on a Sunday. The funky haired woman is probably 19 or 19. She’s standing defiantly, almost looking for a fight, or perhaps just expecting one.
“Argh!” Huffs the bagger. “I shouldn’t even have to say why! I’m an animal activist. Okay? Meat is murder!”
I look down. Oh. That’s what she didn’t bag. I got some sliced chicken and turkey from the deli.
“What?” asks the cashier again, not sure she actually heard this correctly.
“MEAT. IS. MURDER.” Repeats the bagger.
Without missing a beat, the cashier reaches over, snags the deli meats and puts them into a bag and hands them over to me. She rips off my receipt, hands it to me and recites how many points I have available for gas discounts. And she smiles, weakly.
“Have a nice night.” She says to me.
I smile back with a mumbled thanks and I head out. I don’t make eye contact with the funky haired woman or say anything to her.
As I’m walking away, some tense conversation is going on between the cashier and bagger. I hear her say, “Oh I could show you videos…” before I’m out of earshot.
On my way out, and driving home, I’m torn about the incident.
Because the Pajiban in me feels really proud of that young woman for standing up for a belief structure that matters to her …
But the business owner in me can’t believe that some clueless idiot thinks that work is a proper place for protest …
But the dad in me thinks I hope my daughters grow up to have courage in their convictions …
But the consumer of that store in me thinks, man she made me feel really judged in that check out lane, in a place where I shouldn’t really feel that way …
But the activist in me thinks that if you’re not pushing your agenda in a place where it matters, like Kaep kneeling for the anthem, then how will you ever move that agenda forward?
But the son-of-a-silent-generation-father in me thinks there’s a time and a place…there’s a time and a place…
But the feminist in me is thrilled that we live in a world where women have a louder voice, and I’ll take informed fellow citizens who care about something any day of the week over the usual apathetic sheep who have no idea why they do anything …
But the Gen-X’r in me scoffs that this entitled, youngling who hasn’t really experienced life yet thinks the whole world is her personal stage and that she can make a scene wherever she wants …
But the friendly friend in me thinks that she’s probably so used to taking shit in this idiot town that I can’t blame her for having a quick trigger with all these mouthbreathers around her at all times …
But the pragmatist in me is like “um, if you have a problem with meat, maybe don’t get a job at a place where a big part of the actual job is handling meat.”
But the punk rocker in me is like “Fuck these squares! Burn this bitch down, funky hair!”
But the pop psychologist in me is like This is a perfectly reasonable line to draw, but possibly drawn in the wrong place. I wonder at the life experiences of this woman that have led up to the point where she’s so quick to look for conflict.
But the long-time customer of that store feels like I should shoot them an email to say that I didn’t particularly like how I felt during that interaction, and I wouldn’t want other fellow customers to feel that way.
But the sensitive schmuck in me knows that would probably mean that funky hair bagger would get in trouble and it could possibly affect her actual job and livelihood. And while she may be making her own bed, I certainly don’t have to be the one to force her to sleep in it.
In the end, I showed a tremendous amount of sophistication and courage and compassion by hurriedly pushing my cart out of the supermarket as fast as I could and then jerkstoring everything I could have and should have said on the drive home.
I still don’t know who’s right or wrong.
I’m still not sure where I land on any of it … but it’s amazing what knots you can get tied in because of a simple trip to the grocery store.
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