To the Customer Who Demanded to Know What's 'Wrong' With Me
I don’t know why I gave you a second thought. I don’t know why I’m writing you this letter I know you will never see. It’s some sort of catharsis.
You didn’t know me. I’ve never seen you before myself, or at least I haven’t seen you enough to know you as one of the regulars. Like the woman who came up to me after you’d gone, who I see on an almost daily basis. She knew you had made me upset enough to cry, upset enough to have to leave my register and walk away for a minute.
In all my six years of cashiering, it hasn’t happened that often. In fact, I don’t think I cried once in all the other times that stick out in my memory. I didn’t cry when a lady was upset with me because I bagged her tomatoes with her bread. She called me a bitch though, so loudly that my manager at the time heard her from two registers away and told me to instantly walk away from the situation. I didn’t cry when the lady who thought cashiers were beneath her spit on me after she argued with me about the price of an item. There are a thousand other stories like this, times when I was treated with disrespect and I didn’t cry.
You know what the difference is between those incidents and your behavior? In all those situations, I was treated like crap because I was upholding store policies. I was doing my job to the best of my abilities. Those people were treating my person with contempt as a way of manipulating me into getting what they wanted from my employer. You were not, sir. You treated me with disrespect based on what you saw about me, decided my personal information was your business, and demanded that I tell you.
“What is wrong with your leg?”
I pretended I didn’t hear you. I have trouble with my hearing, and I thought I could just ask you another question about your visit to my store, maybe even ask if you were having a good morning, but before I got the words out you asked me again.
“What is wrong with you?”
This question in and of itself is rude, especially posed to a cashier who has never met you in her life. Because you weren’t a regular, I didn’t feel like you were asking me out of concern. You didn’t know that I haven’t limped all my life. You didn’t know I have stood in that spot for the better part of the last two years, making relationships with customers and their kids because I see them more than once a week. You didn’t know I am hard of hearing, that I have nieces and nephews I love, that I love the people I work with like family.
Most importantly, you didn’t know about the pain I was in. You didn’t know how hard it was for me to get out of bed that morning and dress and get myself to work. You couldn’t have known how I had woken up at 2 a.m. with a heartbeat so high I was running marathons in my dreams. You didn’t know about the ache in my feet. The feeling of fatigue that runs its way through the byways of my body, weighing me down. Because you didn’t know this, I had no reservations about looking you dead in the eye and saying. “Sir, I’m disabled.”
Most of the time this is the end of it. When I tell strangers that I’m disabled, my reply embarrasses them and they realize they have no business asking invasive questions. They stutter an apology and I pretend like they never asked. But you pestered on anyway. “That’s not an answer to the question. I asked what was wrong with you.”
You had handed me money at this point, and I turned to my open till to count out your change and hide the tears burning in my eyes. I explained to you very shortly that I was sick, and while I handed back your change you lifted your hands in a dismissive shrug that seemed to say what did it matter? I continued talking while grabbing your receipt from where it had printed. “It’s none of your business. You don’t just ask people why they are limping.”
You were angry at me for telling you this, so angry that you threw the box of groceries I had packed for you into your cart and stormed away. I don’t understand your anger. Were you angry at me for getting upset at you for asking a personal and invasive question to a cashier whose sole purpose was providing you with pleasantries and customer service? It’s my job to be nice to you.
The most important part of this was what you didn’t see after you stormed out. You didn’t see the tears fall as I helped the next customer in line. You didn’t see me telling my manager I needed her to watch the lanes for a minute, so I could go cry in a corner where there weren’t any witnesses to my emotional pain. You didn’t see me pull myself together, hug my best friend, and go back to my register and work the rest of my shift. And you didn’t see the regular customer who saw my pain come up behind me and whisper in my ear, “I love you.”
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Thinkstock photo by Paul Burns.