I became third person. It happened at Walmart. It was the strangest thing to be spoken of as if I were not present. I almost could not believe it, and might have missed it completely, had I not taken a moment to be curious about what was happening around me.
Standing in the checkout line at 10:00pm, putting groceries on the conveyor belt was the icing on the cake of an incredibly long Thursday. My husband was still out working. The least I could do was make sure there was food for breakfast in the morning.
A woman and man stood in front of me, finishing their transaction. I was preparing to unload my full cart onto the empty conveyor belt when I overheard a female voice loudly say, She can wait. She’s got all those groceries to put up on the counter. I’m gonna look for my gum.
I felt a presence walk around me searching the candy rack, still talking. It took a minute to realize that I was the person she was talking about. I was the one who could wait because I had all of those groceries. Her volume and tone felt harsh and dismissive. I was confused by her need to comment at all, since it was obvious that I was not in a hurry and did have a lot of groceries. I would not challenge her need to take extra time making a gum selection.
I proceeded to unload my cart, ignoring the commotion around me. Focusing on minding my own business, I felt something inside of me running for cover. The loud voice began again. I wouldn’t want to be out shopping at this hour and have to unload all those groceries when I got home. The words were directed towards her partner and the cashier, not at me, again at a volume that spoke otherwise. I was being talked about is if I were not there. Words about me were not spoken to me.
Had they been, I would have assured her that I don’t exactly enjoy late night shopping trips myself. This grocery run is happening out of necessity due to unexpected circumstances in my day. I did not plan to be at Walmart at this hour. In fact, every fiber in my body fought the entire trip to stay focused and not flee the task, leaving an empty cart somewhere back among the dairy (something that I have actually done before!)
I wanted to go to my local Food Lion, but it closed early for a remodel. Aldi also closed at 9, leaving Walmart as next on the list. I had actually prayed before I left the house that God would give me strength and help me make wise shopping choices. When Walmart was the option available, I figured that must be the answer.
It helped that when I entered, the jovial young man walking beside me rushed ahead and grabbed two carts. Here, Mrs. McClay! Let me get a cart for you. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to be my teacher! We laughed and chatted and remembered together, and I told him that the joy of seeing his face was one of the things that would keep me going on this late shopping trip. He had the same laughing eyes and smile as when he was small, though a beard now covered his chin.
I was grateful for my teaching practice of always (mostly) treating my students like the adult people they would one day be, with kindness and respect. This was not the first time a lumbering young man has looked down at me as we reminisced about early childhood school days.
Returning to present, my chest felt heavy, like I wanted to cry the giant sobs that had been accumulating throughout the day. The only thing that kept me grounded while checking out was the smiling face of the cashier ringing up and bagging my groceries.
We had nothing in common age, gender, or ethnicity-wise, but he was kind to me, and I was kind back. I was too tired to engage in conversation beyond returning his smile. An understanding smile can cover a multitude of hurt.
Gathering the final bags from the rotating bagging station, I noticed the line behind me had grown longer. I fought against a feeling of shame that it was because I had so many groceries. At this point his line was the only one open. A lady further back begin to complain loudly about it being the only line open before actually asking.
Is this the only line open?
Yes, he said. There is also self-checkout.
I was reminded that as hard as it is to be grateful, as hard as it is to be kind at 10:08 under the fluorescent lights at Walmart, it is worth it to try. We are all people. We are people doing our jobs as best we can. I am trying to get food for my family, this young man is trying to earn a paycheck, and if we could spread a little kindness, a smile, a look into someone’s eyes instead of a loud talking around and about each other, we just might find ourselves in a little bit brighter of a place.
Let’s grab a cart for one another!