Kindness, Covid, Cashiers & Conan

Every night, at 7pm, clapping, shouting, banging pots, and other auditory accolades honor health care professionals. From inside my apartment, I cheer, too. I also extol other essential workers, including cashiers. Cashiers are like site specific theatre actors: they must always be prepared to calmly deal with the unexpected and keep the show, I mean the line, moving.

I was a cashier for eight years, on Saturdays, at the now closed Always Love on 72nd Street. Every time I stepped under the spotlight, I mean fluorescent lights, the narrative pulsed with potential conflicts. For example: some patrons left behind empty take out cups, cigarette wrappers, food. (Would you like people to visit your home and dump their refuse?) Other customers spoke so rapidly they were hard to understand, like one lady who I thought asked for “Dog chocolate.” Turns out what she really wanted was dark chocolate.

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Due to Covid-19, it’s now even more stressful to work in retail, as some shoppers are very emotional. Recently, I witnessed a scene at a local store where a customer was not pleased with the selection. She cried, cursed, accused the manager of disliking her, then demanded the manager leave the store. Like true professionals, the cashier and the manager did not allow the woman to engage them. Take it from someone who’s been there, it’s harder not to lash back.

Here’s how it ended:

Customer: I WILL NEVER SHOP HERE AGAIN.

Me: (Thinking) Good.

She growled, tossed money on the counter, grabbed her purchase and stomped off. I adjusted my mask, then paid for my pack of lightbulbs. I also wondered: why do some shoppers abuse retail workers? It’s like blaming the driver for a traffic jam. As my Grandma Lee used to say, “Are you off your mind?”

Local stores are the heartbeat of our communities. Anyone can click “Buy Now.” However, if you prefer to support neighborhood merchants (see Toilet Paper Truffle Hound) and value in-person, human interaction at a local bank (see Desperately Seeking Henry), shop small. And be kind. These are real people. With real stories and feelings. Like me.

You may remember me from Loves: I rung purchases with startling alacrity (actually, I wasn’t that quick), shimmied onto the counter to retrieve cigarettes (in truth, I bellowed, “MANAGER!” so loudly people jumped.) What I lack in technical acumen and physical prowess I make up in auditory volume. Regardless, I did my best to help shoppers circumnavigate a myriad of products found (eventually) within a catacomb of sagging shelves.

A few vivid memories (aside from seeing cool, foreign coins and drivers licenses) involved meeting favorite actors and singers: Carol Kane (“Taxi”), Roger Bart (“Desperate Housewives,” The Producers), Jessica Hecht (“Friends,” Fiddler on the Roof). I also bagged Beanie Babies for Edie Brickell (say that fast five times.)

However, Conan O’Brien’s purchase was the most amusing. He strode into Loves one cold, Saturday morning wearing a black turtleneck, black pants and a long, black coat. A blonde woman and young child walked next to him. Soon after, Conan handed me a four pack of chocolate Jell-o pudding. Was that snack his comedic inspiration? Guilty pleasure? Both? Before I could decide, the blonde woman and child re-appeared. The woman turned to Conan and said: Not that. I don’t want her to eat it. Then, she and the child walked away.

Conan handed me the pudding, I tossed it into the return basket, he placed down ten tubes of Colgate toothpaste.

Me (Smiling): Bad run-in at the dentist? (It was a joke and I figured he’d laugh, or smile. Instead, he looked confused.)

Conan: Huh? Uh, no. It’s my favorite and hard to get. Usually I can only find odd flavors, like…

Me: Jalapeño. (Come on, Conan, smile. I know you can do it.)

Conan (In a faraway voice): Hmm….Jalapeño.

Was he considering the flavor? Mourning the loss of the Jell-o pudding, which maybe he also, but secretly, enjoyed? Or, was Conan only attuned to comedy in the studio?

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Conan and his show have since moved to California. Still, I wonder: can he locate his favorite flavor or has he altered his toothpaste allegiance? Sadly, I have no idea of his current dental agenda. I do know it’s important for all of us, especially now, to smile and thank the person behind the counter for their service. While a gift of jalapeño toothpaste or dog chocolate might turn heads (and stomachs), gratitude is always welcome.

Tara Tandlich is an illustrator, award-winning writer (Prose Fellowship- NJ State Arts Council) and multi-subject tutor. When she’s not running errands the prehistoric way, by visiting retailers and banks, you may find her at: taratandlich.com and tarastutoringnyc.com.

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Featured images by Gage Skidmore

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