Paper or Plastic

Here are two sample nights at the grocery store.

11/20/2013 – It’s So Hard

Yes, it’s been a while since the last entry about what goes on inside the grocery store at night. Work is scheduling me more like a full-time employee than a part-timer to the point that Human Resources called me to ask, “What’s the deal with all the hours you’re working?”

“Why ask me?” Silence on the other end of the call.

“Okay,” she answered.

Anyway, here’s the rest of the night.

He was a slender black male, early thirties that a strong breeze could topple. His worn blue jeans hung low on his butt. It wasn’t a fashion statement; he had no butt. He was blue on blue on blue—t-shirt, buttoned-down shirt, and jean’s jacket. Always. They matched his blue bandana that encircled his hair, but his baseball cap tilted low and to the right was red. He shuffled in about two a.m. most nights when he did come in. His heavy-set mom with bent legs from some nasty life event was a half-foot shorter than five feet. She could barely make it to the riding grocery carts. She had only come into the store three times and always rode the cart to the bathroom. On all three occasions, I told her to leave the riding cart by her car, and I’d bring it back. Only once in the past four months had they bought anything.

It took a while to figure it out, but they arrived in an older Oldsmobile around midnight stuffed with all their possessions. They parked close to the store but never in a handicapped spot. Most nights, it seemed as if there was a question about whether or not they should go in. Decision made, she’d drive the car to a far corner of the parking lot far away from where a customer would park. They’d be there until around 6 a.m.

He used the bathroom for a long, long time—one-to-two hours. He was washing. I know. I walked in on him accidentally twice before I figured out the loose routine. I avoided the bathroom while he was there to give him some privacy. I had access to another bathroom in the back of the store.

Both of them were, otherwise, courteous and soft-spoken.

Two weeks ago, he sauntered in at 3 a.m. At 6 a.m., he was still in a stall. I did my business, loudly, but detected no noise or movement. Not another dead body, I thought. (The first one I found was while working the census. That’s a story for another day.) I alerted the assistant night manager. He shrugged but didn’t check it out. The day manager came in a half-hour later. He seemed concerned and embarrassed at the same time but didn’t check the bathroom. Tired, I punched out at 7 a.m. and went to the bathroom.

He was staring into the mirror. I peed. I heard a sniffle. I turned around to use the sink, and I could tell he’d been crying. I started to wash my hands, and he pulled open the door to leave.

“It’s hard. Sometimes, it’s just so hard,” he said.

I nodded. He left. I stared into the mirror. Maybe it was the season, but I thought about all the times in my life when a wrong turn, a missed injury, a job loss, a near car accident, a connection not made, a bad choice of an acquaintance, the wrong place to live, or any of the other thousands of decisions in my life that could have made things just so hard for myself. We are all one event away from life making things just so hard for us. Moreover, it resonated, because the hardship of me working here paled to his life regardless of how he and his mom ended up in their situation.

11/15/2013 – Muhammad Ali and Me

Regulars come in with, well, regularity. I’m even remembering the phone numbers of a few patrons. Putting in the phone number is an alternative way to swiping their store card. However, a man came at 5:13 a.m. that I will remember for one particular reason—his hands.

The memory of “meeting” Muhammad Ali backstage at a speaking engagement in fall 1972 came to mind. Before heading on stage, perhaps to lighten the mood, he put his fist against the heads of several people with mock punches. His fisted hands nearly matched the size of some of the heads. The exchange was brief. The memory buried beneath the detritus of life.

I was stunned this morning by the size of the large man’s hands when he gave me his store card. My hand disappeared in his. His perfectly formed paw was twice the size of my stubby, girly, arthritic hand. I hesitated, a blink maybe, as I held his card on a key chain before swiping it, returning it, and finishing his order. When I gave him his plastic bag, the momentary stoppage of time repeated itself. I suppose I wasn’t the first person to have ever noticed his hands.

He gave me a knowing grin and said, “Yeah.”

I should have thanked him. I’d forgotten my 4.5 seconds with Ali until that moment. We are our memories. I wish I’d kept a diary, taken more pictures, or created a scrapbook. I can’t rely on chance encounters to revive the past. It’s never too late to start saving remembrances proactively, and I am, but now I wonder what other significant moments in life, the memories, unrecognizable when they occurred, are buried and locked away in my head just waiting for an unintentional stimulus to awaken them? Get up, get moving, get talking, and get doing. The memories just need a synaptic slap to make you realize how precious your life was, and is.

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