A Bright Spot in a (Sometimes) Dark World: My Experience at the Supermarket

Last week I was in a supermarket checkout line.

A middle-aged lady in front of me had the orange glow of excessive tanning. She also had a conveyor belt overflowing with groceries and two kids in her cart. As she bagged and loaded, she spoke aggressively and dismissively to the boy and girl.

With her taken care of, the young male cashier looked at me.

“How is your day?” he asked softly.

I auto-responded, “Fine.”

“That’s good,” he said as he rang up my items.

His permanent half-smile, floppy brown hair, and peach fuzz mustache made the diminutive young man as approachable as they come. He had a meekness and humility about him, and also a gentleness, the kind of person you couldn’t imagine being outspoken or rude.

As I offered him my automatic, social-engineered response, did I also become self-conscious of how robotic it was. Snapping out of it, and giving this cashier the attention he deserved, I watched him pause for a split second as he rang up my sea salt, dark chocolate bar. Conversation came to me.

“I bet in your job, you see people buying stuff and think, ‘Hmm, I’m gonna get that.'”

He immediately responded, “I was actually thinking that when I saw that chocolate.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” I said pointing at the bar. “Before I tried it, I thought salt and chocolate would be whack.”

“Yeah?” he asked.

“But a friend had me try it, and it’s good.”

He continued running my items through the scanner. I noticed a headline on the nearby newspaper. I drifted toward it and got sucked into the drama and turmoil that keep newspapers in business–that people just can’t stay away from. It took only seconds for me to get riled up about the latest in the world.

I looked back up. How much time had gone by? Enough for my guy to have all of my groceries bagged and ready to go. This wasn’t part of his job.

“Oh, man. Thanks!” I said.

I wanted to tip him and almost thought to ask if I could. My next thought, though, was that it probably wasn’t allowed. This opened the door to my third thought, which I voiced.

“Is your manager around?” I asked.

“Yeah, he should be in the office,” the customer-friendly cashier responded.

I looked at his name tag: “Cody”. And because life arranged for no one to be in line behind me, Cody could walk off to retrieve his manager. I waited with my cart near the exit.

The tan lady finally got ready to go and stormed by, radiating frustration. I felt for her kids. Another lady near the guest services counter spoke loudly into her phone.

“You know what gambling is like?” the heavy-set woman asked assertively to the person on the other end of her call. “I won $100,000, and then I lost it all.”

After overhearing her, I noticed a man in ragged, over-sized clothes leaning over the guest services counter and scratching away at one of those over-sized lottery tickets. More chances to win, they say.

Looking out to where Cody had walked, a man now walked toward me.

“Yes, how can I help you?” asked the 40-something man in white button-up shirt, black mustache, and what I gathered was Indian descent.

“Hi. Are you the manager?”

He nodded.

“I was in Cody’s lane. He was great. I got distracted reading the newspaper, and when I looked up, he had all my groceries bagged.”

The man’s face brightened.

“Oh, that’s good to hear,” he said. “Yes, Cody is a good worker.”

“I just wanted you to know that I really appreciated what he did,” I said in closing.

This was a grocery store in a rougher part of the Twin Cities, the kind of place where the city police has its own counter just inside the entrance of the area Walmart. Many people around here appear down and out, and sometimes the emotions of being in a rough spot show.

But then you have a bright spot, a young man who, to me, represented a calm contentment; someone grateful for a job and willing to work hard at it. I was struck by Cody, because he worked at a grocery store just like I did at 17 (something I don’t see many teenagers doing in the Twin Cities anymore), because his small gesture was a source of warmth in a sometimes cold world, and because his demeanor clashed with those around us seemingly down on life and looking for an easy way up.

For how little I knew of anyone I encountered, the lesson nonetheless seemed clear: work is something to be happy about. And even with bad news around us, good people are too, quiet and pervasive, intent to live a good life, and brightening others’ lives in the process.

My friend Mark offered me this quote recently, “There is a conspiracy of goodwill that surrounds us all.”

Here’s to being like Cody and adding to this conspiracy–if even by letting an employee’s boss know that their worker is doing an exceptional job.