As Easter approached and visions of bringing the perfect split pea soup to dinner danced in my head, I went to a small meat market in the Philly suburbs for a ham shank. The cashier there was accompanied by a trainee. If you're going to start working at a meat market, I'm sure you're in at the deep end in the week before Easter.
"Thank you, ladies, I'll see you again," said the elderly gentleman in front of me in line at the register.
"Yeah, I'm sure you will," the cashier muttered, rolling her eyes at her companion before the man was even past the counter.
"You'll find that some customers, you love," the cashier announced to the new girl as soon as I had paid for the shank and wished them a happy weekend. "And some, you just can't stand."
I was unseasonably irked.
"Maybe you should wait until your customers are out the door before you say that," I said.
"Oh, we didn't mean you," the cashier replied warmly. "We love you." She exuded the ease and honesty of someone who has completely missed the point.
As a customer, it isn't the truth - or her affection - that I'm after.
I understand what it's like to be on the other side of the register. In fact, I have a fantasy that every over-privileged member of society should be required to spend six months behind the check-out counter and learn the realities of customer-service firsthand. Just imagine the peace if you could go shopping without patrons haranguing cashiers about the return policy or the design of the gift cards, as if the peon behind the counter is able to adjust corporate policy to suit anyone who asks.
I remember well a gem of a customer I had when I worked at a local bookstore. He had requested a title we didn't have, but I offered him a free service whereby I'd search out the book from another seller and have it delivered at no extra charge, though I couldn't guarantee the cost or the arrival date of the book.
He became angry. "Why don't you people just give me a straight answer? Do you or do you not have this book!?"
I spoke nicely to him, explained the situation again, and asked for his credit card info to complete the ordering process.
"Why is it always about the money with you people?" he raged.
(The book he was trying to find was called "How To Deal With Annoying People". I kid you not.)
Several years ago, I accidentally shortchanged someone by one dollar at the register. Since I couldn't re-open the register myself, the shortchanged customer had to wait for the manager to arrive.
I apologized nicely, but it was too late.
"This is the worst thing that ever happened to me!" he declared to everyone present, including the people still waiting in line. (We were all free to wonder whether waiting three minutes to get his dollar was merely his worst shopping experience, or the worst event of his entire life thus far.)
As the manager handed him his dollar, he jabbed a finger at my face.
"That girl," he snarled, "cannot add and subtract."
Did I complain about that man? Hell yes. (I also triple-counted every handful of change I dished out for the next three years.) But I waited until the door of the break-room locked behind me.
That's because I know that the truth of the adage "the customer is always right" is certainly not that the customer is always right. It's the less benevolent but infinitely more practical principle of the cult that every customer belongs to. The customer may rarely be right, but he or she is always entitled to courtesy; whether or not it's a sham is totally irrelevant.
As I shut my mouth and left the store with the makings of my holiday dinner, it was hardly a revelation to learn that not every cashier likes all of her customers. Besides regularly visiting the store, who knows what that elderly gentleman did to provoke her? I of all people realize it could have been anything. But it doesn't concern me at all whether or not she likes waiting on him, or whether she still "loved" me after my declamation at the register in defense of my tribe. Far be it from me to stop anyone from venting about the earthly pox of customers, but we both would've made the most of my shopping trip if she had waited until her break to complain.
I suppose, given my experience, I should sympathize with the cashier. But having kept my cool many times on the other side of the register, I feel that much more entitled to the essential lies of customer service.