Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Good Things In Store (and in the parking lot, too)

“Water and air’s free. We got to charge for gas and oil, but water and air’s free.” ~Gomer Pyle, Wally’s Filling Station, Mayberry
Ah, the good ol’ days. Nowadays, you can’t even find a filling station, and you dang sure can’t find free air. It’s at least 75¢ at the convenience stores, and I’ve paid up to a buck to air up a tire. Our planet is mostly water; our physical selves are mostly water, so you’d think it would be free. We know better, don’t we? The water we drink and tote around (inside and out) is the same water the dinosaurs drank, water that’s been around the world and recycled a million times,  yet so many of us are willing to pay extra for a bottle of it that came all the way from the French Alps.
So what’s the trade off? What, if anything, have the convenience stores got over the old filling stations? At the filling station, I’d sit in my car while Wally did everything. Not that Wally wasn’t good company, but he was usually the only person to talk with. I hardly ever went inside because there was nothing to go inside for. At the convenience store, there are wonderful things inside: damn good coffee, fried chicken, sausage biscuits, donuts, etc. And there are interesting people and interactions going on. It’s rare that I leave a store without story. (If every Sociology major spent a semester working at a convenience store, it could be the most beneficial “class” on the transcript.) You get to know the regulars and the employees; it can put a shine on a new day to visit with them and observe them for a few minutes.
They have to charge for gas and oil…and air…and water, but making new friends is still free.

At the convenience store this morning, a woman came in and paid five dollars for gas on pump 6. I was next in line when she left. The guy pumping the gas for her ran over five bucks by just a dollar or two. One of the clerks said, “I hope she’s got it.” The other one said, “They don’t look like they do. I’ll just put it in, myself.” Those of us in line would not let that happen. We all chipped in to cover the overrun. Not a lot of money, but the good part was seeing people’s first reaction being to help instead of saying something derogatory. Five dollars’ worth of gas used to fill a tank. This morning, it topped off my mood and my optimism.

Statistically, about half of them voted for different candidates than I did. Observationally, almost all of them go to a different church—I’ve never seen them in the right one, mine. Many aren’t even the same color as me, and a few (catch me lest I faint!) have not yet mastered English as their second language. Yet somehow, with our TVs turned off and our phones in our pockets, we find common ground: It’s 7 in the morning and we want some coffee. We’re all so nice. “Go ahead, man.” “I ain’t in no hurry.” “That one just finished making; it’s fresher.” Around the convenience store coffee bar, we act like we should. Yeah, the coffee’s good, but that’s not the best part of waking up.

At the convenience store this morning, there was a guy taking inventory. He was on a mission: counting, punching in numbers, and carrying on a loud, rapid-fire conversation with a grim woman sitting at Mission Control about 20 feet away. The inventory guy was bobbing and weaving around the lone cashier. She wasn’t exactly tripping over the guy, but it wasn’t a graceful dance, either. I could tell she was doing her best to stave off irritation while being her usual cheery self with the customers.
When it was my turn, the inventory guy had just found a discrepancy; something didn’t add up. He was looking around frantically. He knelt down just to the cashier’s left, opened a lower cabinet door, and said, “What’s in here?!”
I said, “Oh, man, you don’t even want to know what’s in there!”
He jerked backward and said, “Oh, shit!”
I said, “Ever since what happened on Halloween, no one has dared to go in there.”
The cashier was grinning, almost out loud. Same here.

In line at the convenience store this morning, waiting to pay for my coffee, I started feeling a bit whimsical—you know how that early morning whimsy can sneak up on a person. When it was my turn, I took out a 5-dollar bill and swiped it in the card machine, hoping for at least an eye roll from the cashier. He, on autopilot, said, “Debit or credit?”
Got the eye roll…and a slight grin.  

At the convenience store yesterday morning, there was only one cashier, an ugly woman with a bad attitude. She was distracted by a pile of paperwork. Had to fake a cough to get her to notice me. She wearily told me the price of my big cup of damn good coffee. I was on the devil’s edge of saying something sarcastic like, “I hope it’s not too much trouble.” Or “Sorry to bother you.” But I caught myself this time. She got stuck with the paperwork. Been there. I’m not worth a hoot at multitasking, either. While snark was wrestling with empathy, she almost sneezed but couldn’t quite seal the deal. We all know that feeling.
I said, “Ever notice how no one just does the second half of a sneeze?”
She laughed. Her eyes cleared. She smiled. She became pretty, became her real self.
We had a fun visit. When I left, we were both laughing and wishing each other well.  
None of us are attractive when we’re scowling; all of us are charming when we’re smiling. Circumstances often provide opportunities for the former. It’s up to us to sneak in the latter—for ourselves and our fellow travelers.
(And what’s the appropriate response to a half sneeze? “Gesundh…”? “God ble…”?)

“I was hungry and you fed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was a stranger and you took me in.”
You know the story. I bet, come Judgment Day, it doesn’t have to be anything that drastic to get us welcomed in. It could be something as simple as, “I was standing behind you in line at a convenience store on a Thursday morning. My brain was in neutral. You didn’t know me from Adam, but you paid for my coffee; that woke me up and made me smile all day.”
That happened yesterday. The guy paid for mine and everyone else’s.
I thanked him. He smiled and said, “I just feel good today.”
You get to know the regulars. Never seen that guy before, but for a few bucks and 20 seconds of his time he left everybody beaming, including the cashier.

Friday afternoon. Hectic day at the grocery store. Customers in a hurry, checkers trying to sound cheerful even as the despair in their eyes belies their forced smiles when they glance at the line and see no chance in this lifetime to put up their “This Lane Closed” sign and take an overdue break. Harried sackers are being paged for “Carry Out on Six!” before they’re even out the door with the overloaded cart, cranky mom, and whiny kids from Eight.
In the deli, I’d picked up a little plastic tray of deviled eggs. Never done that before, but they just looked good—and the tray will make some cool ice cubes.
The sacker put the eggs in a separate bag. He probably wanted to know if I wanted to carry them instead of letting them get piled in and jostled with the other stuff. He held up the bag and said, “Do you want these deviled eggs?” I said, “Yeah, that’s the main reason I bought them.” (Wish I’d thought to say, “No, I got ’em for you. Happy Birthday!”)
In the midst of the chaos, the sacker, the checker, and I all started laughing. (One of those situations where the stress relief makes it seem funnier than it really is.)
As he was wheeling the cart to the car, I deliberately slowed the pace. Jeff—no longer an anonymous sacker—and I had a leisurely chat…about the nice weather, how the Razorbacks are going to kick some serious ass next season, and how glad we both are to have jobs. I gave him the best tip I could—which is why there’s nothing but deviled eggs in my lunchbox today, but I ain’t complaining.

The customers in line and elsewhere in the convenience store yesterday morning exchanged the customary “how-are-you” ritual. Some responses: “Well, I’m here…” “You know: same ol’ same ol’.” One of the more positive bluebirds said, “At least it’s not Monday.”
The clerk whose line I was in is always smiling, always upbeat, no matter how hectic or weird things get. When it was my turn, I asked her how she was doing. She said, “God has been so good to me, I can’t complain about anything.”
Always smiling…always upbeat…leads with what’s going right. Coincidence? We know better, don’t we? There has been a slew of research done on the correlation between gratitude and happiness.
All the jargon and rigmarole can be boiled down to a simple experiment: Each day, set aside one minute—or even 30 seconds—to focus on 3 things you’re glad about. It can be 3 things that went right that day, 3 things you’re happy to have, any 3 things that please you. Hold those in your mind for just a bit. Do that for a month. Make it a habit. See what happens.

At the convenience store last Friday morning, Grandma’s Cookies were on sale, so I grabbed a pack of two (chocolate chip) for an afternoon snack.
When checking out, I offhandedly told the cashier, “Granny makes the best cookies.”
He picked right up on it: “I know Granny will be pleased to hear that you enjoy them.”
No one would remotely mistake us for having a common Grandmother. He’s at least a foot taller than me and probably about a third my age.
I said, “How is Granny?”
“Doing okay. She’s a little slow getting started in the mornings, but she tries to stay active. You really should come see her more often.”
“I know… We get so busy sometimes and forget the things that really matter. Tell Granny I said hello, will you?”
“I sure will.”
We were both cracking up, amused at ourselves and each other. No way to know for sure, but I’d bet that’s the first time he’s had a conversation about Granny with a short, fuzzy white guy.

The guy in front of me at the convenience store yesterday afternoon was balancing four of those big cans of beer. I heard him tell the guy in front of him that two were for his buddy out in the truck. He was wearing a dirty, sweat-stained work uniform. When the cashier rang him up, he didn’t have quite enough cash. He said, “Aw, man…” Then he turned to the rest of us in line and said, “Anybody got fifty cents?”
I was/am so very pleased: 1) He didn’t hesitate to turn to strangers for a little help. 2) The rest of us immediately started digging in our pockets for change. No one was about to begrudge them a couple of beers after work. No judgment; no carping; just an abundance of small-town friendly.

At my favorite convenience store, I do not know the politics or the religion of the owners or the employees. All I know is they have fried chicken at 7 in the morning. And damn good coffee, so God bless ‘em.

If you want to attract 7 out of 10 men in the area, raise the hood of your vehicle.
It is reaffirming and fun when strangers stop to help.
One among the assortment of assistants was Willie. Willie was hanging around out front when I went into the convenience store yesterday morning. He is the thinnest person I’ve ever seen, like maybe he hasn’t eaten anything for days, if ever. He looks like he’ll never see 60 again. The baggy, ratty clothes and the frayed gimmie cap cocked to one side do not inspire confidence. When he speaks, his words fall apart after the first syllable. I nodded and said hello. He said something and grinned.
He was still there when I came out. I avoided eye contact. You get the feeling that Willie is going to ask for something. (You don’t know that. Be fair. Practice what you preach.) I hopped in, turned the key…nothing. Well, hell. Popped the hood, hoping it would be something obvious—I have no business under the hood of a car; I only look to keep from having my Guy License revoked. I don’t know a distributor from a dipstick.
The helpers appeared and the opinions flowed. Consensus: It’s the starter, yep, need a new starter. Willie thought it had something to do with the radiator.
I did what any sane person would do: I called Brett. Of course he was busy. He’s always busy, but never too busy for a friend. Brett was out of town; he’d be there as soon as possible.
After I’d closed the hood and thrice thanked the assistants, Willie was still there. He took a position in front of my car, blocking the walkway. Other patrons glared at him and I tried to look like “He’s not with me.” (He’s going to ask for something—a dollar, a cigarette, something.) Willie greeted everyone who drove up. After a dozen or so ignored him, one of them said to him, “Come on. Let’s get you something to eat.” Willie’s eyes lit up and he limped in behind his benefactor.
Willie came out with a plastic bag and a fountain drink. He used a newspaper rack for a table. He gestured toward me with the sack and said something. “Beg your pardon?” Willie said, “You want some?” I understood him that time.
Brett showed up. No big deal, just needed a new battery. Easily replaceable. 
Meanwhile, by a mile, I’d miscalculated Willie. He did indeed ask me something: He asked if I wanted to share his breakfast.
It was good to visit and get caught up with Brett. It was good and necessary to revisit and get caught up with my shortsighted judgments. Brett is never too busy for a friend. I was too blind to see one.

What’s your take on angels? I’d never given them much thought. Never doubted it—we’ve all seen things we can’t explain without a touch of booga-booga—but it’s never been on the front burner.
Until recently: Nine days ago, I posted a story about a friendly old guy who taught me a much-needed concrete lesson about judging people. I kept avoiding him because I just knew he was going to ask me for something. Had him pegged for a bum. My car wouldn’t start, so I was stuck there at the convenience store. Spent at least 30 minutes wishing he would go away. But most of the time he stood right in front of my car until help arrived. I told a friend later that it was like he was guarding the vehicle, and I was cynically thinking he’d expect a tip for it. All he ever asked me was if I wanted to share his breakfast—that someone else had voluntarily bought for him. “You want some?”
If you ever saw this guy, you’d never forget him. He was old, raggedy, and bent over. He had such a limp that it seemed he would fall over with every step. He was the thinnest man I’ve ever seen—made Don Knotts look like Chubby Checker. No, you’d not forget him.
Later that day, my friend, Gayla, commented, “You just never know ~ the old guy might have been an angel helping you get things in perspective…”
That got me thinking: 1) He never once asked me or anyone else for anything, including the guy who paid for his sack of sausage biscuits. “You want some?” 2) As soon as Brett brought the jumper cables, the car started, and I closed the hood, the guy was gone. He could not have moved that fast. He was there…and then he wasn’t. At the time, I was too focused on getting to the mechanic’s place to even notice. 3) When you go to the same convenience store every weekday morning, you get to know the regulars and the surroundings. I’d never seen this guy hanging around before. It’s been over a week and I haven’t seen him since. 4) When I was telling my friend, RaChelle, about it, she said, “Back up: You said it seemed like he was ‘guarding’ your car. Guarding…Guardian…” She looked at me, waiting for the connection to click.
Something Wayne Dyer said popped into my head: “You’ll see it when you believe it.”
(Update: Over two months later, I still haven’t seen hide nor hair of “Willie” again.)

A few moments ago at the convenience store, the clerk smiled and said, “You sure have some pretty white hair.”
Well, now! I said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Then she said, “That’s how I want mine to be when I get old.”
Well, now…

On the far side of the convenience store parking lot sat a Budweiser truck. When leaving, I had to wait for the driver, wheeling a stack of cases into the store, to cross in front of me, then drive on and turn beside the truck. Next to the truck, there were more cases, stacked and ready for the next trip. Just sitting there…with the driver’s back to them. Yonder came a guy about my age, on foot. His trajectory toward the store required him to walk behind the Bud truck. Without turning his head, he glanced over and took in the unguarded cases. Our eyes met. My truck was in the perfect position to block anyone’s view. We exchanged smiles and subtle head shakes.
I read a lot into that smile. No way of knowing what was going through his mind, but I bet our thoughts were similar. To me, it meant, “We know better now, don’t we? We know that karma is very real. We know that unearned rewards not only fail to satisfy, they actually diminish, and ain’t nobody got time for that. We may not have much by some standards, but what we do have: isn’t it a joy and a refreshment to know that it’s truly and rightfully ours?”
(While the choir stands and sings “I Don’t Do Like That No More.”)

My change at the convenience store was $14.82, so the cashier, while handing it to me, said, “Fourteen eighty-two.”
I said, “What a coincidence: That’s the year I was born.” (Hoping for at least a polite chuckle.)
He nodded seriously and said, “Oh, is it?”
I know I’m getting a little rough around the edges, but hey…

When it was my turn for an audience before the convenience store cashier, she was deeply involved in a conversation with her supervisor about some paperwork protocol. They did not stop talking the whole time my purchases were being rang up. Neither even looked at me. When the total was announced and the hand extended, I was on the verge of saying something snide like, “No, no, don’t let me distract you. The last thing I want to do is interrupt. My petty needs can wait. In fact, if it will make it easier for you, I can just go to another store.”
But the angel on my right shoulder whispered, “Just for fun, see if you can break the spell.”
Hey, where I work, we too have our forms that must be properly filled and our databases to obey (“You must check one of these boxes!”). It’s easy to become a slave to the software and forget that there’s an actual person standing there, someone who doesn’t give a $#!+ about our logistics. Been there, done that, bought the sausage biscuit.
So I said, “The gasoline was a refill. Don’t I get a discount?”
Their eyes cleared. Their brains rebooted. They laughed. Not because what I said was funny, but due to the relief of momentarily returning.

Later this morning, so many of us will be so busy, so important, so professional. We’ll be meeting and multitasking and PowerPointing and pontificating. We’ll be on point, on the ball.
But not yet. First, we’ll stop by the convenience store to stock up on coffee, fountain drinks, cookies to stash in the desk drawer, maybe a sausage biscuit to pop in the microwave for a mid-morning snack. We’re relaxed, visiting with the regulars and bantering with the cashiers. Maybe a tank full of gas and a lottery ticket to fuel our daydreams.
It can even, at times, trigger a burst of gratitude. For billions of people on our fine planet, a trip to this convenience store would be like a journey to Oz. “Not only do you have money to buy things, but there are actually things on the shelf to buy!” (It might be fun for a delivery truck driver to see that wide-eyed wow every now and then.) Just a routine stop at the store on a Monday morning? Not hardly. I wonder if the store employees realize what a valuable service they provide. Maybe I should tell them.

1 Corinthians 13:11 talks about being all grown up and putting away childish things. Sure, we want to shed the childish stuff; ain’t nobody got time for that.
But let’s not confuse childish with childlike. We want to keep the childlike things: The sense of wonder, the capacity for unbridled joy, learning something new because we really want to. That little person is still there, still part of the mix. We don’t leave it behind; we transcend and include. Most of the time—at least in public—we try to keep a lid on that kid, but now and then s/he jumps out, anyway.
This morning at the convenience store, when I stepped up to pay for my coffee and snacks, the two guys leaving were almost doubled over with laughter. Don’t know what they said to the cashier, but he was also laughing. He tried to recover, but it wasn’t happening. He was laughing so hard, he couldn’t even talk. He, this grownup, was…delighted. I got a glimpse of him as a child; it was refreshing…and contagious. I wasn’t in on the joke, but I was in on the best part. He tried to apologize. I said, “Don’t you dare, man. You just made my day.” And he did. Eleven hours later, I’m still smiling out loud about it.

Yesterday at the convenience store, in my change, they gave me a 5-dollar bill that was wrinkled beyond belief. It was limp, worn, and faded. There was a piece of cellophane tape mending a rip. Someone had written on the flipside, something quite tacky. It felt creepy, especially when I imagined where all it might have been and what it may have been used for. People were waiting in line behind me, so I didn’t make a big deal of it.
During lunch, I took it to the bank. In exchange, they didn’t hesitate to give me a crisp, new one, confident that the folks who created it would still honor it. No matter how it looked, no matter its history, it retained its face value.
Someday, I’ll have to offer my wrinkled, faded, nasty-past self. Oh, what fun it is to know that I’ll still be accepted, at face value and then some. Not because of what I am, but because of who made me.

A few weeks ago, we were all invited to try a sample of a new sausage they were considering at the convenience store. It was very good. The other day, I asked if they were going to switch to the new one. The woman said, “We told ‘em everyone really liked it. They’re having a meeting about it.”
“They’re having a sausage meeting?” I asked.
Never been to a sausage meeting. Sounds like fun. I’ve been to a lot of meetings, most of which were nowhere near as interesting.
(Wonder if there was a report from the biscuit committee. And if so, did they do a FlourPowerPoint presentation?)

This morning at the convenience store, I was checking out when a fellow came in—if I’m any judge of codger flesh, he’s about my age—and asked to see a local phone book. The cashier looked around and couldn’t find one. She asked the guy if he had a phone. He did. “What are you trying to find?” He said he wanted to find a U-Haul dealer. The cashier said, “Just Google U-Haul on your phone.” Well, the guy didn’t know how to do that or even if his phone had the capacity. “I know green for call and red for hang up.” I can identify; that’s all I knew or wanted to know for years. I do now know how to Google on my phone, but my glasses were out in the truck, so I could not have read the dinky screen print. I pulled up Google (I can see the blue icon) and handed my phone to the tech-savvy, young-eyed cashier. She took it from there and got him the number. A phone book would have been quicker and easier—they used to be everywhere—but there wouldn’t have been as much friendly interaction. We all had fun with it and a bonus grin to kick off the day.

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