I’m in a convenience store. I’m standing in a long line. Ahead of me are three boys in soccer uniforms, several construction workers, and one UPS man. I know this sounds like a great opening line for a joke, but it’s not. There are no nuns present.
Anyway, I remember stopping at this store every morning before work when I was on a landscaping crew. Back then, there was a young guy who worked behind the counter named Doug.
Doug was about ten-foot tall and several thousand pounds of muscle. I don’t know how he fit through the door because he was built like a General Electric refrigerator. And he had the tender heart of a Beanie Baby. Doug would never let me pay for my coffee.
“But Doug,” I’d say, “I don’t need free coffee. Let me pay for it.”
“Nah, I always pour out the old coffee every morning, it just goes to waste. Just look at it this way, you’re drinking waste.”
“Your money ain’t no good here.”
I’d keep trying to pay. He’d keep refusing. Round and round we’d go until I finally accepted the coffee. This is a ceremony of sorts among decent people. A ritual dance. Nobody ever accepts free things without protest.
I never knew Doug outsider the store, but after he quit working here I missed seeing him.
For years, I also stopped at another convenience store like this one, on the other side of town. Usually on Sunday mornings. I had to wake up early for church because I helped clean the chapel before service. I was sort of a glorified janitor you could say.
I straightened hymnals, adjusted microphones, and made sure the Baptist choir loft didn’t have any liquor bottles or racy magazines hidden in the tenor section.
An hour before service, I would fly into the convenience store to buy gas, coffee, and a honeybun. One morning I realized I’d forgotten my wallet. The girl behind the counter was pregnant and looked like she was going to pop.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You can pay next time you’re in here.” Then she reached into her purse and put cash in the drawer. I will never forget this.
I returned later that evening to square up with her. She refused my money. Because like I said, it’s part of the ritual.
So you can imagine how upset I am right now, standing in this line, watching a man chew out the cashier.
The cashier is a young woman—a teenager. She is new, and apparently doesn’t know how to work the register. She is struggling to figure out correct change because the computer is malfunctioning and she’s not very good at math.
She is biting her lip, sort of counting aloud. But this guy is only getting madder. Because it turns out that the cashier accidentally shortchanged him by—get ready for this—eleven cents.
A few people in the store have tried to calm him down, but the man is on a warpath because he claims she’s shortchanged him several previous days too.
Now in the interest of fairness, I’m sure this man has a valid argument. Either that, or he might have a hemorrhoid the size of a grand piano. Whatever his reason, he is acting like a total jerk.
The people in the store are growing tense.
The boys in soccer uniforms whisper among themselves. “What’s wrong with that guy?” They can’t be older than twelve.
Finally, a manager approaches the irate gentleman and asks if he will leave. The man gets huffy, says a swear word, collects his eleven cents, and storms out of the store.
By now the cashier is in tears. She places her face into her hands. She is trying to hold it together, but it’s difficult when someone acts like a horse’s backend.
There is an uncomfortable silence and people in line are looking around at each other trying to figure out what, as onlookers, the right thing for us to do is.
Do we console her? Do we join hands and start singing “Kum Ba Ya” like at church camp? Perhaps a Burt Bacharach song? Do we burn the man’s truck to the ground and string him up by his underpants? There are a lot of options here.
The soccer boys have a better idea.
One boy says to the cashier, “Please don’t cry, ma’am.” Then he extends an unopened ice cream sandwich to the young cashier. “Here,” he says.
The cashier looks at the kids for a moment. Maybe she’s not sure what’s happening. I know I’m not. It’s starting to feel an awfully lot like a TV commercial for Coca-Cola in here.
“Oh, I can’t take that,” the cashier says.
The boys insist. In a few moments the cashier’s face breaks into a smile. She accepts the gift, and even starts laughing a little. Maybe to keep from crying.
The young woman finishes ringing people up. The soccer boys ride away on bicycles. And before I leave the gas station, I glance through the window one last time to look at the cashier. I see her tear open the paper wrapper and eat the ice cream sandwich. She pauses now and then to wipe her wet face.
And I can’t help but wish that old Doug would have been here today.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, be nice.