Saturday, July 30, 2005


At 4:06 P.M. on a Friday, a man pulls up in front of the shop on a ten speed bicycle. It appears to be at least twenty years old. The man himself appears to be somewhere between sixty and seventy. The bike has several little plastic grocery sacks tied to its handlebars, bearing the names of other local shops. It is clearly his primary means of transportation.

The man is a tall, mocha-pigmented black man, perhaps six-foot-two, with what, quite unusually, appears to be naturally dark blond hair and beard. His clothes are little more than rags; his denim overshirt is frayed at the cuffs, his sandals falling apart around his feet. Everything he is wearing has faded to several shades lighter than its original hue: his denim shirt has drained from dark blue to pastel, his undershirt from red to pink. Great, I think, bum. Then I think of how hot it’s been lately, and, forgive me for this thought, I imagined how ripe he was probably going to smell.

Something interrupts this line of reasoning, gently applies the brakes and steers it in a different direction: the street people I see don’t usually wear faded clothes; they wear dirty clothes. I look again: there are large bleach spots all over the man’s shirt; the socks underneath his sandals are white as unbroken light. These are clothes that have been washed, hundreds of times, over many years, and obviously quite recently. The shopping bags suspended from his bicycle are new and unwrinkled, recent purchases. None of this quite fits the profile I’ve assigned him moments earlier.

As the man is repositioning the plastic sacks, the four o’clock rush hits. Cars descend from nowhere, the pump-authorization alerts wail as if there’s an imminent air raid, and a ten person line forms before my register. My tramp is dead last in line. The line moves slowly, the scourge of this plastic money age in which people seem unable to resist paying for small purchases via PIN debit transactions that take ten times as long as their cash equivalents. When the tramp approaches at last, I thank him for his patience, the industry-standard apology for a long wait.

There is no need, though. The man radiates patience. He exudes serenity and peace. The calm, unforced smile on his face as he sets his two fountain drinks and bottle of vinegar on the counter draws me into his little envelope of content.

I ring up his purchases: the bill for the three items comes to $3.34. He hands me four dollars and, when I return his 66 cents in change, promptly drops it into the plastic “leave a penny/take a penny” bin beside the cash register.

“Would you like a bag today, sir?” I inquire.

“Nah,” he replies, “I don’t think so. You have a nice day now.” I believe that he actually means it. I watch him walk outside and find room in a bag from another store for his purchases. He didn’t take a bag from me because he already knew he didn’t need it. I remove his change from the bin and set it above the drawer, to break into pennies as later necessary.

I have just been in the presence of a mystic, a sage who wants nothing because he knows that he already has everything, who lives by his needs and gives of the little that he has. I feel a sense of wonder and awe that an angel has been sent into my convenient store, and a twinge of envy that when this man dies he will melt away into Nirvana, stroll unassumingly through the back door of heaven, while I’m busy being reborn 40,000 more times or rotting in Purgatory or whatever while I work out why I assumed initially that he was a vagrant. My hell, as Peter Gabriel once wrote, will be a big hell—and I will walk through the front door.

It is 4:46, the calm between the on-the-hour, post-work flurries of business that define any convenient store. A boy of perhaps seven comes in and picks up a pink Critter Rose, a nylon flower in a plastic tube with one of several fuzzy, brightly colored toy insects attached. His sports a purple dragonfly.

“How much is this?”

“It comes to $1.06 with tax,” I explain, as children tend not to be so adept with the concept.

“This is what I have,” he says, opening his palm and exposing seven dimes. “It’s my mom’s birthday today, and I forgot to get her anything.”

I take his seven dimes, and add 36 cents from the sage’s donation to it, ringing up the piece of gimcrack that will doubtless bring a smile to the child’s mother’s face. “Somebody else got the rest of it for you,” I say. “Tell your mother that the guy at the gas station said happy birthday.”

I realize, after the boy happily strolls away, that I have just completed a tiny miracle begun by another, witnessed Providence at work, whatever theological construct tickles the fancy. It is beyond my skill to relate the unique feeling of that recognition.

And people have the nerve to ask me why I work here.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


It’s 6:30 P.M. on a Thursday night, and I’m staring into the eyes of Lucifer, the Morning Star cast from heaven for attempting to usurp creation. I hate staring into the eyes of Lucifer at 6:30 on Thursdays. I could have sworn I included avoiding this very situation in the New Year’s resolutions, along with smoking and vacationing in Darfur.

“Write…a note…to the register,” Satan commands. Although it is my custom to succumb to temptation and do things I’m not supposed to do when there’s something in it for me, Satan is presenting a situation that can be of no possible benefit to myself, my store, or my coworker Mike, who got me into this mess. More on that in a bit.

The arch-fiend isn’t sporting leathery bat wings and cloven hooves or smelling of sulfur and brimstone these days, in which such ostentatious displays of masculinity might offend the neo-eighties, (WARNING POLITICALLY INCORRECT COMMENT), faggy pink shirt ethos that has so lamentably re-descended upon us. He’s camped out, in all his puissant, diabolical might, behind the unwavering brown eyes of a retired, horrifically insane physics professor named Leona. She’s made a request of me that there is zero, zip, nada, rien chance that I will accommodate, and now we’re locked into a struggle of wills that I really could have taken a pass on.

Leona is like something out of a dark fairy tale: a tall, gaunt, wrinkled black woman, who, seemingly to add the requisite fairy tale touch of outlandishness, carries with her at all times a wooden cane that she neither needs nor uses. She used to teach at the university across the street, before her mental condition deteriorated into its present, heavily medicated state, at which juncture she was politely asked to retire. Her story is something of a parable around these parts, principally about the psychological risks of trying to foist advanced math upon nineteen-year-old American college students.

As to the mental condition bit, I should clarify: she’s usually heavily medicated. She is clearly med-free today, and I’m reaping the harvest of it with the joy of a 1984 Ethiopian subsistence farmer staring in horror at his scorched, foodless, lifeless plot of earth.

But like any story that climaxes in the middle, or any story at all, this one starts at the beginning: I was walking back from my restocking duties in the cooler to the front of the store, only to find Mike engaged in a debate of sorts, with Satan, which he kindly redirected toward me.

“It’s his shift and not mine, so I can’t make that decision,” Mike generously deflected, “so he’ll have to decide it for us.” Understandably, I became immediately apprehensive: Mike and I have the same rank, an identical unimportance. Neither of us are managers, and so, with this little lie, his passing the buck onto me could only mean that he felt it was my duty to lift a weight that he had neither inclination nor means to lift himself.

“So it’s your shift,” the Evil One, in Leona guise, replies, to me, as powerful and yet wanting as John Milton wrote him. “I have a cappuccino, and need two packs of Marlboro 100’s. Ethel lets me run a tab until I get my check.” Ethel is the store manager; Ethel is on vacation. Nowhere in the employee handbook or in my training is it said that I can extend tabs to regular customers: you pay for your stuff, or you get your stuff when you have the ability to pay for it. No advanced degree in economics is necessary for an understanding that five-year-old children already have come to fathom. My company, and hence my place as its representative is not a bank: it does not evaluate your credit-worthiness, or discern your likelihood to repay a loan. It offers many, small, relatively inexpensive products and then requires that you pony up for them, immediately, on the spot. We do not engage in a layaway program for nicotine and caffeine; we live in the old world barter system by which we exchange product for money, instantly and finally—a transaction as clean as a scalpel, as done as death. The only way I can extend her a credit is if I pay for her items myself, and as she’s making my evening decidedly unpleasant, my prevailing winds are not blowing in that direction.

“Ma’am,” I say, searching for words too evasive to immediately collar, “Ethel’s on vacation, and I haven’t the authority to loan you merchandise or the money to pay for it on your behalf. These cigarettes and that cappuccino don’t belong to me, and therefore I don’t have the ability to give them out without payment. Have you got a credit card or checkbook?”

“No,” Satan/Leona retorts, “WRITE…A NOTE…TO THE REGISTER,” as if raising her voice at me will have the same effect that it might on children and animals. I am telepathically telling Mike at this instant what he can go do with himself.

All the while, we are locked in a terrible, mutual gaze of unflinching eye contact. I’m, I must self-indulge, very good at this game, as someone whose inherent curiosity about other human beings often overpowers my fear of them: I occasionally, through this modest asset, wordlessly send people away blushing and frightened who could buy and sell me or kick my ass. This is the nearly boundless power of eye contact—the hammer of the awakened.

But at this moment, Leona and the intensity of her madness-laden stare are overpowering my resolve. Her otherworldly dementia is trumping my Zen; the dark side is stronger some days, whatever Yoda said to the contrary. I am looking into two torches from the nether world, not twitchy and irresolute, like the flickering, dancing eyes of my crackhead patrons, but fixed and still as the eye of a storm, frozen and patient as sedimentary rock.

Leona cannot win this battle, in the material sense, of course, but I can certainly lose it. She isn’t getting squat from me without shelling out the obligatory ducats, but she can make me flinch. Physically, I am as steady as a glacier, but Leona is making me flinch on the inside, where everything that matters occurs anyway.

“You aren’t getting cigarettes without giving me money,” I reiterate, for what I hope will be the final time, knowing full well that a physically unintimidating, sixtyish woman has, in fact, driven spikes into my soul. My patience is exhausted; I want this to simply end.

And then a strange thing happens; Satan slowly unscrews the top of her cane, reaches into its caverns, and produces a five-dollar bill. Khrushchev has blinked; the missile crisis is over.

“I’ll buy this cappuccino, and take one pack of cigarettes,” the Lord of the Flies proclaims.

That’s right; the Enemy had the money to pay for most of what it was requesting from the get-go. We have gone through this entire, arduous process unnecessarily, as a tacit exercise in lunacy, because Leona hasn’t kept up on her prescriptions. I am bereft of words. I simply ring up her purchase and send her on her merry, utterly depraved way.

And after Leona leaves, after the shift has ended, after I’ve graciously thanked Mike for leaving me to deal with a deeply unbalanced person, I am left to ponder the idea of evil. One might argue that Leona isn’t evil, but instead that she’s merely disturbed, but I would maintain that these are simply two different ways of describing the same quality, with ignorance being the third. Right conduct in life arises from clarity of perception, the ability to see the right path and avoid the pitfalls deriving from perceptual error; evil and madness, blindness and ignorance are the pollutants that muddy the perceptual waters, the perversions of the will, as Augustine described them, that sully our motives and lead us astray in our actions. Evil is a sandstorm and a blizzard, hiding us from reality and goodness as clear as the air.

By this measure, from a certain perspective, no one, not your serial killers or pedophiles or war criminals is ever really evil, in the common sense of the word, which is a creature to be despised and abhorred. People are, rather, simply mistaken, choosing unwisely for lack of the ability to do better. We can understand this concept more fully when we look at certain phrasings: when one has done something evil, it is frequently described as having done something wrong. The individual has been presented a riddle and answered it incorrectly; from an objective point of view it is the same nature as a teen failing to correctly answer an algebra problem. Hence it makes little sense to hate lunatics and murderers alike; they suffer from an illness that has corrupted their better nature and compels them to perform acts that are repellant to those less afflicted. They are, in their fundamental essences, sick, things to be pitied and helped rather than scorned—there but for the grace of God go I.

So, for the better running of society, we take corrective measures: we prescribe medications and build prisons and hire police and fund schools, so that people can be guided correctly in life and not fall into the darkness and folly that is error, the identification with unworthy principles that leads individuals to cause harm, to inflict suffering on themselves and others. Leona isn’t a great danger to anyone, and that’s why she’s simply prescribed meds and not locked in a cage like some rabid animal. But there is, nevertheless, something quintessentially unnerving about looking into the swirling chaos and hellfire just beneath the surface of that unwavering glare, as disconcerting as free-falling down a well: it is looking into a funhouse mirror, seeing a distorted but recognizable version of your very self.