Category Archives: Conversations

Some like it not

Insider told me that 60 percent of Easter eggs sold at supermarkets fly out the door the day before Good Friday (Thursday, that is). And while many get into the spirit of Easter – that is, buying oodles of chocolate eggs and bunnies and bilbies and not-so football shaped chocolate footballs – I came across one grandmother’s favourite child who was positively hostile to the idea of being bought chocolate.

Mother and son combos are rare features at a supermarket. Grandmother and grandchild pairs are even less common – particularly in the case of grown up grandchildren with their parent’s parent. But it was this exact combination who happened to have an argument at my checkout, an argument I deemed worthy of note.

A few days ago, a pleasant (if a little hard of hearing) elderly woman was doing her grocery shopping with her grandson, a tall twenty-something with scruffy brown hair and the impatient frown of a four-year old. The grandson waited at the end of the checkout and duly collected the grocery bags and transferred them to their trolley.

After a long period of silence, the elderly woman turned to her grandson and asked cheerfully if he would like some eggs for Easter. The man responded icily that he would not like any Easter eggs and said that every time she bought them for him they ended up getting thrown out.

‘Why do they get thrown out?’ said the grandmother, who seemed genuinely confused and hurt.

Her grandson tossed her an angry glare. ‘Because I don’t like to eat them. I don’t eat chocolate and they just go to waste. So don’t get me any, okay?’

The elderly woman blinked and fell quiet again. Her son resumed the transferal of bags to their trolley.

Another quiet moment passed. Finally, hoping that I didn’t sound rude, I piped up, ‘You can buy me chocolate if you’d like.’

The elderly woman didn’t seem to hear me. Her face unchanged, she glanced down at a grocery bag as I placed it on the platform in front of her. Her grandson, however, caught my words. And, contrary to what I expected, he was amused by what I’d said.

He grinned for the first time, looking much more amiable than he had previously, and jostled his grandmother.

‘Did you hear her?’ he asked.

His grandmother turned to him, puzzled. ‘What was that?’

‘She said that you can buy chocolates for her if you like.’

The elderly woman looked at me and said warmly, in that doting grandmotherly sort of way, ‘The next time I return, I’ll buy you some chocolates.’

‘Why thank you,’ I replied, laughing lightly, relieved that my joke had been well-received.

Even more unexpectedly, the grandson started to explain to me why he didn’t want any Easter eggs. He patted his belly and said that he had eaten too much chocolate in recent times and didn’t need help in getting any fatter. I can’t remember what my response was, but internally I was comforted by the fact that he wasn’t a heartless creature who was unneccessarily rude to his grandmother. There was a reason behind his rejection of his grandmother’s kind offer, and while it may not completely excuse the tone he used with her, he was humanised somewhat in sharing his motivations with me.

In terms of this whole Easter egg receiving/giving business, I am reminded of something a young actress said in a publication I read a while ago. She said, of designer goods companies giving her free stuff, that before she hit the big time she could have really used the products but had a hell of a time acquiring it. Now that she has money, she’s innundated by designer freebies.

The Easter egg-adverse grandson has a grandmother who is all too willing to buy him chocolate. My darling boyfriend, who yesterday admitted his indifference to Easter eggs, is probably accepting little bundles of chocolate from his family as I type. Yet little ol’ me who has been eyeing Easter displays with glazed eyes is something close to Easter-egg starved. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this world is filled with many inequalities.

I may not receive any eggs this season, but I will be taking advantage of the price reductions on Easter goods on Tuesday, when major supermarkets will be open again. It is rumoured that Easter chocolate will be 50% off. I’m salivating already.

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You had me at hello

As you would expect, simple questions yield simple, if not recycled, answers. But ask the same question often enough and you are bound to find departures from this norm.

This question is, of course, the greeting ‘How are you?’

A month into my checkout job, I realised that some people don’t expect a reply when they ask ‘How are you?’ The statement is turned not so much into a rhetorical one, but into something that just rolls off their tongue after having received the correct cue. I learned this after repeated incidents in which I gave the standard ‘Not bad, how are you?’ and either A) Didn’t receive a reply or B) Got a startled look because they hadn’t anticipated a response.

That aside, I generally don’t like to ask how people are unless they look willing to respond, and even then I hesitate to do so because in 90% of cases a ‘Hi, how are you’ is followed by an ‘I’m well, and you?’ followed by a ‘Good, thank you’, and all this gets to be a bit of a bore.

Lately, though, more people have been giving original, revealing responses. A few days ago I served a group of people who I thought might be Swedish (they were Norweign). One member of the group seemed open to conversation so I asked how they were.

A pause. ‘Hmm, I don’t know,’ he replied.

‘Well, at least you’re honest,’ I said, smiling.

A thoughtful chin rub: ‘I will have to give the question some thought.’
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It was either the case that they hadn’t thought more on the question during the transaction or that the answer was so staggeringly complex that their brain was still working on it, but by the time they left the man hadn’t decided how he was feeling that day.

Today I received a much more detailed and unexpected reply. In between customers, I had seen a short, scrawny fellow with sores on his face walk into the store. Later, I found him in the queue for my checkout, purchasing only two items. He asked how I was, and I told him that I was alright and returned the question. Out came the answer:

‘You see, I went to this party on the weekend and I ended up crashing [read: falling asleep] there. I slept on a couple of pillows that I thought looked okay but when I woke up my face was covered in pimples,’ he said, gesturing to his face.

The pimples that he mentioned weren’t so much pimples now but open wounds. Spots of dark dried blood wallpapered his cheeks and chin, and you could tell that they weren’t going to go away in a hurry.

I gave him a sympathetic look. ‘Geez, what was on those pillows?’

‘I’m not sure… I mean, I checked them and they looked clean, but it turned out that they hadn’t been washed for like, a couple of months. I also had this white thing on my forehead when I woke up…’

I fished for another sympathetic response. I failed to conjure up a more compassionate one and finally murmured, ‘That’s too bad…’

Mentally, I was still wondering why he was telling me all this. It was interesting to know and nice to be engaged in a conversation, but it didn’t really bother me whether his spots had arisen from natural causes or through misadventure. As though he had read my mind, he continued:

‘But yeah, I thought I would explain to you why my face looks like this because I’m embarrassed to be seen by someone as gorgeous as you looking like this.’

Averting my eyes in a kind of automated modesty, I thanked him. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m no contender for Miss Australia. That I get these sorts of remarks from time to time arises more from my attentiveness to customers and friendliness, I think, than any objective appearance of abject beauty. Put simply: my perky checkout smile and attitude appeals to some people I happen to serve.

We moved on from talking about his face and what he thinks of mine to other, fairly standard, topics.

When the spotted-faced boy had left, I began to apologise to the next customer, an elderly woman with faded, untamed hair and full cheeks, but she didn’t seem to mind the delay in serving her. Instead, she delighted in the previous goings-on.

‘That boy turned back to look at you a couple of times to see if you were looking at him,’ she tittered, with all the enthusiasm and manner of a schoolgirl gossiping with friends.

My mouth twisted into a wry smile. ‘Is that so?’ I said, feeling no desire to quash her excitement.

‘Yes. He seemed like he was propositioning you before.’

I laughed. ‘Well, that’s nice, but I already have a boyfriend.’

‘Ah yes, but you can’t blame the boy for trying.’

I added, thinking of this blog, ‘I don’t think I’ll tell Boyfriend about this incident. He wouldn’t be pleased to hear of it.’

The woman was confused. ‘Why not? Listen, I’ll tell you something about men,’ she said, leaning in conspiratorially.

I nodded and gave the impression of attentiveness, while at the same time scanning and bagging her items.

‘With men,’ she continued, ‘They’re always thrilled when someone else shows a desire for what they have. It makes them proud to be the one who has it.’

I “Mmm”ed in agreement, though I wasn’t entirely sure that her theory applied to Boyfriend (or to me, for that matter), and told her that I might tell Boyfriend after all.
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I may not need to tell Boyfriend because he’ll probably read about it here. In which case, if he’s gotten up to these lines he’ll be reading about me saying that he’s reading this. As for the standard checkout greeting script, I haven’t received an ‘I feel like crap’ in reply to a ‘How are you?’ yet, but I am holding out for that day.

Scoping the electorate

March 1st marked the autumn of the opposition leader Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon. On March 2nd I canvassed opinions on the issue of his meetings with Brian Burke from my checkout.

Upon telling him about this, my father asked suspiciously how I managed to grill people on their political leanings. I should have probably said that I set up a ballot box at one end of the checkout, but instead I told him what I actually did.

I brought up the subject of politics casually whenever I handled the newspaper a customer happened to be purchasing. I would say, as if for the first time that day, ‘I think the headline story today is Kevin Rudd’s fall from grace.’

And from there, utterances about politics followed.

In the past, when I’ve talked with customers about politics, they often gave very vague responses about the political situation. They make short generalized statements about politicians and re-hash soundbites from the nightly news. I re-hash what I’ve heard as well, but given my AM radio listening compulsion, I tend to have a bit more material to draw upon. So it was a surprise when I interviewed one woman yesterday who seemed to be very clued in to the world of politics.

Not only did she hold firm opinions about who she preferred (Rudd, and wasn’t fazed by the recent information that had come to light about his involvement with Brian Burke), but further on in the conversation she also added that she had friends who are state government insiders who say that WA’s premier, Alan Carpenter, is ‘A very honest chap.’

Then, in a slightly less desirable turn of events, she turned to the customer behind her and began discussing politics with her, ignoring me completely.

It really sucks when that happens.

The customer behind her was slightly less knowledgeable about politics but, like me, was impressed that she knew people who were government insiders. Now, this may be anything from Alan Carpenter’s secretary to the person who vaccuums the state parliament house, but it was nevertheless exciting. This customer also was nonplussed about the Burke news that had come to light and said that we needed ‘A new face’ in the leadership role. However, she also confided that she supported Natasha Stott Despoja, which prompted a few comments from me about her.

The person behind Ms. ‘We need a new face’ looked positively bored by our conversation, so I put her down as being in the “Undecided” camp.

A third person I spoke to was fervently a Howard fan. To them, I said, ‘The leadership doesn’t usually change hands unless the PM or President really screws things up.’ And they agreed.

A fourth person seemed disinterested. Not so much disinterested in the topic, just uninterested in talking about it with me. But he did mutter that he supported Howard.

Overall, I think the results from my poll fairly accurately reflect the results from polls conducted by the media on a much larger scale. An almost 50/50 split between Rudd and Howard, with one undecided.

Perhaps closer to the federal election I will place a ballot box beside my checkout.
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P.S. On other occasions I’ve discussed with customers their attitudes towards extended trading hours and daylight savings. The mood over daylight savings was largely negative, with most angry that the three-year trial in WA of daylight savings had been forced upon us, against our want – as indicated by the previous referrendum held over the issue. And on the topic of extended trading hours, those working in retail didn’t want hours to be changed while mere shoppers/nine-to-five, Monday to Friday workers wanted hours extended. No huge surprises there.

Almost Famous

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve served someone who shared their name with a famous country singer. Well, I haven’t served anyone who was a celebrity in their own right, though from the grainy shots I’ve seen in tabloid magazines of people like Heidi Klum and Jennifer Love Hewitt at supermarkets, in time I may just have my brush with fame.

But for now, I’ll have to settle for two degrees of separation and former minor rock stars.

Today, I served a burly man who said that he was from New Zealand. Upon answering yes to his question of whether I knew of the film Whale Rider, he told me that he was ‘From there’. I could only assume that he meant he was from the place where the film was set and that he wasn’t delusional and under the illusion that his life is a film, a la Adaptation or Stranger than Fiction.

Jokingly, I asked whether he knew Keisha Castle-Hughes, the star of Whale Rider. Without changing expression, he replied carefully, ‘Yeah, I know her.’

‘Really? That’s interesting,’ I said, grinning slyly.

‘Well, I last saw her when she was really little.’ He waves a hand at around knee level to show how small she was. ‘I’m friends with her father.’
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A few weeks back, I had a very interesting conversation with a man I served at the beginning of my morning shift. I’m constantly surprised by how greater things can grow from mere small talk, and this was one of those occasions where talking about the weather can sometimes lead the person you’re conversing with to telling you about their time in a rock band.

Well, I did say sometimes.

It all began when I said how fortunate it was that it would cool down by Sunday because I was attending a music festival that weekend. This prompted the man to ask whether I played any musical instruments, to which I replied that I dabble with the piano and the bass guitar but I’m not particularly stellar at either. I added that I sing better than I play.

Then I returned the question. And it opened up a Pandora’s Box. The man, as it turned out, was in a band for seven years. He was, apparently, the lead singer and played rhythm guitar. (Boyfriend later argued that it is very rare for rhythm guitarists to also be the lead singer and insisted that he was pulling my leg.)

Further questions revealed that his band composed a few original tunes but mostly played covers (‘We covered around two hundred songs’). They played at various functions and clubs, and even opened up their own club, entertaining there most nights of the week. Thinking of all the nightclubs I had seen in the city open up and disappear or re-vamp themselves six months later with a new name and a lick of paint, I said that nightclubs don’t often have a very long life span. In response, he said that contrary to popular trends, his club lasted many years.

Everything he said was in past tense, with a certain hint of nostalgia, so I asked why his band disbanded. Ruefully, he told a dramatic story about how one day on stage he had a mental blank. He couldn’t remember what song they were meant to be playing and how to play the song on his guitar. He had to ask the drummer to remind him. It was then, he intoned, that he realized that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore. They were playing up to six nights a week and he was burned out. Things had become almost robotic for him, he was operating on auto-pilot. Very simply, he’d lost his passion for making music.

‘…And I haven’t touched a guitar since,’ he finished.

Yes, it was a very grand tale.

I’m undecided about whether it was a true story though. I see no reason why he would have made anything up, and why he would have gone to the trouble of weaving lies for a humble checkout operator. But, I guess I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Not simply because I like to think the best of people, but because it was quite a nifty ol’ story.

Oh, that old time of rock and roll.

She moves in Freudian ways

The other day I was working back to back with a girl who had a dark complexion. Okay, okay, to cut the PC bullcrap – she was black.

During a quiet period, a sprightly elderly woman approached her checkout and began exchanging friendly banter with her. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the woman was a regular customer and that the girl behind me was a favourite operator of hers.

I listened on as they joked around and at one point they spoke about something which prompted the elderly woman to exclaim, ‘They’ll give you a black eye!’

There was a second’s pause before the woman corrected herself and said hastily, ‘I mean a bloody nose.’

As I watched with a grin at her faux pas, the woman eyed with some concern the black girl for her reaction. The black girl just smiled, also amused by the slip-up.

A hairy conversation

‘Am I going bald right here?’

My co-worker looks at me, concern etched on her face. I peer closely at her head, at the spot she is referring to. As I reply, I try to remain expressionless.

‘Uh, no, I don’t think so. It looks pretty much the same as before.’

We are about fifteen minutes into our shift, working back to back. This is the first chance we have had to talk to each other since our initial meeting at the Christmas lunch in December. It is beginning to seem that our conversations will never be banal. Over roast chicken and cold chips, we had somehow progressed from introducing ourselves to each other to discussing sub-cultures. Apparently, she was in primary school when the gothic movement took root.

Right now she is speaking softly, her voice a little hoarse. She looks tired already.

‘You see, when I’ve been showering recently, clumps of hair seem to fall out for no reason.’

I nod.

‘When I was little I used to have very long, very thick hair, but by the time I was nineteen it started to fall out and become much thinner.’

‘Hmm,’ I muse.

‘And now my hair doesn’t seem to be able to grow past this length.’ She waves a hand at shoulder height.

I say carefully, ‘Well, I suppose it is a little thinner on top than before… but just a little.’

‘You know, once my hair grows longer than this, it just falls out,’ she says solemnly. ‘I haven’t cut my hair in four years.’

I’m taken back by her last remark. Looking at her hair, I answer, ‘Wow… uh, perhaps it’s hereditary?’ I’m referring to hair loss but I don’t want to say the words.

She responds calmly, ‘I’m not too sure what it is, what’s causing it.’

At this point a customer has walked up to her checkout and is eyeing her for assurance that she is ready to serve them. I smile, and gesture towards the person to signal that I’m alright with ending our conversation abruptly. She turns to serve the person and I soon find myself busy as well.

Sometime during my shift, she leaves her checkout to attend to other duties. We haven’t spoken about her thinning hair since.

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P.S. Haven’t seen Japanese guy for over a week. Am very relieved.

P.P.S. Was asked for my number by a man yesterday. Although indoors, his eyes were obscured by sunglasses.

P.P.P.S. Because I wasn’t there to advise my father of our current stock levels, we now have over 3kg of chicken wings in the freezer at home.

All these things that I’ve done

At nine am, work was fairly well dead. There were only two people manning the checkouts at this hour, myself and a checkout veteran, whose eyes today were ringed with white eyeshadow. (Don’t ask. I sure didn’t). The few customers that were in the store eventually made their way to the checkouts. Glancing from the other woman to myself, they made a decision and bounded towards either her or me.

Between customers, I stared off into the shop floor and tried to think up a new topic to write about. I watched the other checkout operator converse with one mother after another and make cooing sounds at their babies. She got the mothers and babies, I got the elderly couples and twenty and thirty-somethings shopping alone.

At another point, she exchanged some cordial words with someone several feet away who I assumed was a regular customer that she had become acquainted with. They called out to each other over the dead space separating them, and laughed at shared amusements. Then the customer returned to her shopping and disappeared into an aisle. It was during this encounter that a realization struck me. Being a checkout operator is more than the act of being friendly and processing customers’ shopping as efficiently as possible. It’s a battle for hearts and minds.

My company insider (herein to be called ‘Insider’) once told me a story about a checkout operator who was so well liked that on one occasion all of the customers who were ready to pay had lined up in front of her checkout. The few other checkouts were completely unattended. When a service assistant approached customers standing in the queue to suggest that they proceed to an unoccupied checkout, they refused. The customers were adament about being served by this one service cashier and were prepared to wait for the privilege.

The explanation for the behaviour of the customers was that the checkout operator had endeared herself to her customers. She had established significant rapport with the people she served, and had become a pleasant fixture of their shopping experience.

Now I don’t aim to model myself in this mythologised operator’s image. But I do try my hardest to make each transaction as painless as possible and to leave the people I serve thinking, ‘Ah, I liked that girl.’ If you’ve ever played Sims, then the graphical equivalent of what I try to achieve is to stimulate an image of a smiley face above the customer’s head.

Today I had a most unusual encounter with a customer who seemed to think that I was not only a competent checkout operator, but practically an enlightened human being.

‘Hi,’ I smiled, to the customer who had arrived in front of me. He looked Japanese, in his twenties, with a cap planted loosely atop their brown-tinted hair. And he was staring at me as though I was an incarnation of James Brown.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I was over at that other checkout’ – he turned and gestured to an express lane where a new sort-of work friend was standing – ‘but I saw you and decided to come over here instead. You just looked so… friendly.’

Amused, I asked, ‘Friendly? How so?’

‘You just have this glow about you. You’re so bright and… I don’t know, happy.’

I had to laugh. ‘Oh really?’

He continued, ‘You seem to be a very spiritually happy person, very content and in touch with who you truly are.’

With some irony, I thought to myself, Ah, if only he knew the truth!

Aloud, I said, ‘Well, thank you. That’s a… pretty flattering compliment,’ smiling broadly.

‘Mm. It was a compliment.’

‘Are you a spiritual person?’ I asked.

He nodded. ‘Yes, very much so. I believe in being in touch with myself and with the world around me.’ He grasped the grocery bag I had placed on the produce scale. ‘And you seem to be very… radiant.’

I counted out his change, laying the notes and coins on his open palm. I could feel his eyes on me, still staring solemnly.

‘Well, I hope that means that you’ll be coming back to this store, ‘I joked, looking up.

He responded with a serious expression on his face. ‘It doesn’t matter if I return here or not. I’ll keep with me your reflection.’

His eyes bore into mine. I blinked back, grinning stupidly. I was amused and flattered in equal parts, but was glad for the fact that the former of the two didn’t seem to show.

Giving a weak laugh, I broke the staring match. ‘Ok. Well, it was nice meeting you,’ I said.

The Japanese guy held out his hand and I shook it. ‘Nice meeting you also. Have a good day.’

‘I hope you have a good day too.’
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With each customer, the situation is always different. Facial expressions, body language, reactions need to be gauged to determine how I will interact with them, and win them over if possible. While a new challenge would be presented by the next customer to come, it seemed that this one battle at least, had been won.