She still has that dark line running up the back of each bare leg. Women did that during the Depression and World War II: drew lines up their legs to simulate the seams of the stockings they could no longer buy. Each time I see this cashier I wonder if she’s making a statement, an unspoken protest about the present state of our economy. Or maybe she’s an immigrant and this is simply the fashion where she comes from, I consider, forgetting for a moment that I’ve heard her voice. She speaks pure Michigander, just like me.
A line of customers stretch back into the insecticide aisle; I’m somewhere in the middle, watching, clutching a packet of tomato seeds that would have been a better choice back in April. I just need something I can go through checkout with. Though, if my mind was actually on the garden today—if I was straight about priorities—I would have picked something else. Or not have come at all, but I won’t think about that now: I need to solve a mystery and what is important is I’m here and she’s here, her striped legs just another incongruity I have to deal with on this warm June afternoon.
I’ve been buying my garden supplies here for a couple years: seeds, fertilizer, and whatnot. Planting vegetable gardens has become popular during our several-years-and-running winter of discontent in this state. Heirloom tomatoes and Asian eggplants don’t begin to make up for all those lost auto jobs; it’s just that home-grown veggies are a larger part of what we have at this point. We can at least save a few bucks at the grocery store. Of course, much of the country is like Michigan now, yet I think we might safely claim our economy tanked first and, probably, will recover last. They’re hunting pheasants and planting organic farms these days in some of Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods, which actually amounts to good news, a promising development, according to the local media. Are there many other large cities where that would be considered a bright spot?
Thirty-six other Michigan cities—that once paid their own way—are now dependent on state government money to meet payrolls, to stay out of bankruptcy. The auto companies, fattened up on a rich government diet, are profitable again. That is a blessing few expected, though, their diminished scale and two-tier wage schemes point more to what was lost than what survived. They simply offer more proof, if any is needed, of the greater distance stretching between bad and worse than good and better.
“Lucky to have a job” is what you hear nowadays, and it is true enough. It serves as a code phrase for the longer version “I’m working harder than ever for less money and fewer benefits but at least I’m still working.” We’re all seriously motivated about our jobs in these latter days of the Great Recession, or, depending on your outlook, early, tottering steps of recovery. Even the smiles of the near-minimum wage employees of this store have a genuineness that was lacking in former times. Being near the bottom in terms of pay and job satisfaction is not quite as hard to take when the actual bottom has been redefined as a yawning pit mined ever deeper and wider into the social strata. Lucky to have a job, if you have one at all.
I’m here, at my neighborhood garden supply chain store, in a state which has been at or near the top unemployment rate for years, to see the exception. What I suspect might be a less than doctrinaire acceptance of the new reality: the “I’m-so-lucky-to-be-working, smile, smile, smile” approach to customer relations. I had come to see her, she of the mysterious legs and no name, working the register again, because she doesn’t seem to fit this brave new world.
It looks like she’s forgotten her name tag, as usual. Everyone else, the floorwalkers, cashiers, even the various species of managers roaming about in matching green shirts and shorts, eager to help, wear a name tag. How does she get away with that?
She’s petite, with dark hair worn closely, almost a man’s cut, and pale skin. I’d bet the bank that skin hasn’t felt the sun for a long time. A subterranean pallor clinging like winter days cling to basement apartments. Downcast eyes that take in just enough and not one image more. She might be twenty-five, possibly thirty—definitely no older—and in addition to the mystery of her name, I’ve never seen a smile. Seven, eight times a year she rings up my purchases, doesn’t smile, doesn’t remind me that potting soil is a twofer this week, and don’t you want to grab another bag? No eye contact. At all.
For a year I thought it was me. She didn’t like my looks: too scruffy, too old, whatever. Not that I expected any more interest than is normally afforded to middle-aged, long-married male customers by attractive cashiers. The old eye-flick, accompanied by a weary sort of lip compression, would be good enough because I have no romantic illusions. At least not any more than the normal response to someone like me. At some point I noticed she treated everyone the same, which went a long way toward ending a lingering fantasy that she’d been smitten by me and was struggling heroically to keep from showing it. Not that, then.
The lady has a system: stare at the scarred vinyl floor while you’re piling your merchandise onto the counter. One hand wields the scanner while the other manipulates the boxes for the bar code. Beep, beep, beep. Her eyes move to the register. “Twenty-eight seventy-nine”—or whatever amount the total is—projects just above the ambient noise level. I’ve caught myself leaning into the counter in case she has anything to add. She never does until after cash or card is produced, and this part is still mysterious, because you’d think she has to look at you in order to know how you’re paying.
I’ve never caught those eyes on me, never saw her look at anyone else. Somehow she figures it out, her hand accepts your card without touching you and then it’s “Debit or credit?” as flatly as you’re ever likely to hear a question posed. Change and receipts are laid on the counter, not in your hand. Eyes still averted, a bag appears from under the counter, in goes your stuff. Time elapsed: twenty to thirty seconds. Don’t bother waiting for a “Thanks for shopping with us today.”
She’s grieving, obviously grieving, I’ve thought recently, until today, really. Somebody died on this woman. She’s lost a child, a husband. Not ready to come back except she needs the money like we all need the money. The management understands, leaves her alone. I imagine an office somewhere in the depths of the store, a room filled with returned, dying ferns, a conversation ending with “She’s going through a rough time. As long as she’s not actually rude to a customer….”
She’s not rude. She’s unapproachable, terribly unhappy, and it’s been two years, and I can’t tell myself it’s a grieving thing any longer. This is a choice. She doesn’t want to be here—she’s never wanted to be here—and everything, not wearing the name tag, the legs, the eyes, they’re all a conscious choice. I’m nearly up to the register now; I can see she’s not feeling lucky to have a job in this state, in this economy. She’s staring at the floor while some guy gets out his wallet. She doesn’t seem to know that the unhappy cashier shtick is so old, so done in this corner of the Western Hemisphere, in the early 21st century.
Maybe the Chinese can afford to be dissatisfied, with their economy growing at a double-digit pace even in the midst of shrunken world markets. Maybe in Shanghai you can be a cashier today, run a factory tomorrow, sell iPhones next week. Maybe you’re a cashier because it pays well enough and suits you, and as soon as it doesn’t you do something else. It was simply your next step up on a ladder that only goes up.
In Michigan we love our jobs, especially when we hate them. We’re no longer suffering the agony of too many choices, so why not smile and sing the whole day through? We know the lyrics well enough by now—You got a job? Maybe it’s a bad job, but you still won the lottery, baby. Don’t be showing us that long face around here. Congrats on your MBA: you rate a cubicle now. Hope you didn’t borrow too much for that degree—That’s how we do it in the here and now, except this little cashier won’t sing the tune, won’t march along.
This is a chain store. I know there has to be a team of retail consultants making the rounds somewhere. Those edgy, zany cut-ups from Upscale Marketing Land, with their fun-fun team-building drills and “Point of Sale Customer Satisfaction” training videos. Full of perky, empowered sales-folk engaging almost mythically ideal, affluent patrons in friendly banter, selling them up from the quotidian $19.95 rose bush to the knock-your-neighbor’s-eyes-out tricolor beech tree for a mere $295.95. How has she survived that?
I’m up to the register finally, across the counter from her, with my measly pack of tomato seeds for which anyone else working here would love to tell me it’s too late in the season. They would sell me a potted plant already laden with blossoms. “Just go home and stick it in the ground, and you’ll be eating tomatoes by mid-July,” they would say. We’d have a pleasant chat about awful grocery store tomatoes and I wouldn’t feel any pain over an 89-cents-plus-tax purchase morphing exponentially into $6.95.
But not her. I want to hang on to my little packet and stare at this woman until something happens, until she must look up to acknowledge that it’s going to take a little extra to get past this one item idiot who’s slowing down the process. I mean to hold up the line, drill a hole right between those down-turned eyes until she asks what my problem is. And I’ll tell her what the problem is as soon as I know what it is.
I’m annoyed, but that isn’t it. She’s admirable, really, at some level. Not afraid to opt out of the communal illusion, and, if I was feeling only that, it would be easy to smile in tribute to this odd, courageous bit of pushback against the creeping menace of fear-induced corporate perkiness. Just leave her be.
She’s waiting for me. Everyone’s waiting, and I’m not obliging. I’m not going to do it. We’re all frozen together, the only sound a rush of blood beginning to pound my ears. I see her head-bowed profile, this caryatid, standing still with a hand-held scanner, with those lines running from ankle to mid-thigh. Up they go, thin and straight and black, and time stops. I see the lines continuing on in both directions, through floor and ceiling. I’m following them; I can’t stop myself. I’m split asunder, floating through past and future—I see now what’s been bothering me about her all along.
And I blink first. My pack of seeds hits the counter. “Ninety-five cents.” But I no longer care. My eyes are on the floor while I’m fumble money from my wallet. A dollar flutters down—I don’t want to touch her, or see her again. I want another cashier. Give me one of those smiling faces, somebody with a name tag and bright eyes. A hearty, laughing voice bellowing, “Oh no, we’re not letting you out of the store with just a packet of seeds. Don’t you know that marigolds are on sale? And potting soil—you need a lot of potting soil.”
I will buy the potting soil, bags and bags of it. The marigolds too. And wrap up a tree, a three hundred dollar tree. I’ll plant it incorrectly. The tree will die in winter’s depths, but that will still be a better future than what I’ve just seen.
That we’re not getting out of this. That when we grow our way out of this recession, we won’t quite make it all the way back. Our peaks will be lower, the valleys deeper, blacker. I see it, the truth she’s given me that I don’t want, can’t believe in. I want somebody to tell me she’s wrong. There is something better in store for us than grimly hanging on. Sell me a tree, a dream, a method, a way back. Give this woman a raise, and then put her to work in a back room where no one has to see her. Take her away, and sell me.