“Ehh crap. I left my wallet in the car.”
I said this to the cashier after she’d shuffled all my groceries into two reusable bags. A black one I got at an innovation convention a couple months ago, “Enterprise Innovation” written across it. And a red one I got when I worked at the Nashville Scene,”We’ve got issues,” branded on it. That one I love. So clever. The black one just works.
The cashier says “Okay.”
It’s freezing outside and I’m halfway to my car when I realize my wallet, the little multicolored bifold Michael sent me from Japan, is actually at home. Somewhere inside my house. Probably in a jacket pocket. Warm. Asshole!
I think about saying screw it and aborting the mission all together. But I have dinner plans with the Batman’s tonight and I’m to bring a dish. I’ll have to go home, come back, and then go home again. I dart out of the parking lot and take a curvy two-lane back road, usually a shortcut from the grocery lot to my driveway. Then I saw it. A police Suburban followed by two white Escalades, followed by two white stretch something-or-others and a line of cars with headlights on. A funeral procession. Just kill me.
I instinctively turned on my headlights and pulled to the side of the road like it’s something I’d been rehearsing since I was a kid.
I marveled at myself for a moment, then I watched my rearview wondering if other people still do this, stop to show respect for the funeral party. Or if someone was going to come careening around the curve, rudely, and give me whiplash. And a new car.
I counted as the line of cars creeped at me, hazards flashing calmly.
33, 34, 35.
A van came to a stop behind me, lights on. I felt a bit of relief, and pride. Head of the Model Citizens Brigade, was I… with a buffer between me and whomever might rear-end the guy behind me.
46. 47. I skipped ahead as far as I could see and estimated 56 cars in sight. Creeping. The people inside look like they’re on a rollercoaster pulling into the station and thinking we waited 3 hours for that? A big to-do, then nothing.
A black car rolled up behind us, the van and me, its lights off. Lurched forward a bit, then stopped again. Repeated this a few times in my rearview, before deciding to go on around us. Then another car followed suit, but with less hesitation.
I thought of my Asian fare back at the store, waiting. Frozen egg roles sweating in the red bag, wondering if they’d make it to the Batmans’ tonight for dinner. Wondering if I’d even come back.
The van finally gave up and pulled around me. I had lost count of the cars but figured whatever ever number we were up to, it was the threshold between being courteous and being crazy. As the van’s Belmont University bumper sticker shrank in the distance, I decided I couldn’t stand to be left behind. I followed the educated people in the van, forming our own motorcade. Half of two ships passing in the night. All of us trying to get on with our lives.
In my bedroom, I searched through a pile of pockets, diving blindly with my hands into smooth white fleece, fluffy navy fleece, a noisy yellow wind breaker, and finally found it.
I pictured the cashier working beside my sundries in her cramped office. Wondering out loud to the bag girl Where the hell did that guy park? Thinking to herself that this is some sort of scam. Monitoring the bags with her side-eye in case I tried to sneak in and make off with them without paying.
Back at the store, I enter through the exit doors because technically I’m at the end of my shopping transaction so I’m more like the people on their way out than the ones just getting started. I’m swimming upstream against a steady flow of carts full of plastic bags full of boxes full of food, driven by multitaskers with children and phones and overweight spouses.
I queue up in lane 15 behind a guy with a complicated order, my two bags tucked cozily, waiting, on their best behavior.
“The sale paper says these are two-for-one, but it didn’t say that on the freezer shelf” says the guy in front of me.
Swell. The cashier examines the sale paper as the pink-faced man keeps explaining, his voice pitched high and meandering apologetically like a kid asking politely for a toy, saving energy for a tantrum should the answer be No.
“Just ring it up. See what happens,” I say in my mind, leaning in across the conveyor belt and wondering why people invent problems for themselves. “Maybe it’ll ring up as advertised. I’ve always found computers to be smarter than cooler shelves. Let’s just see what it knows.”
Eventually the cashier stops playing detective and, with a bloop bloop, the oversized toddler grins and gets two 12 packs of Milwaukee’s Best for the price of one. “Someone really ought to put a sign on the shelf,” he says as he fumbles to pack his life back into his wallet. I design the shelf talker: Shit beer!?! Only $2.99!!!!
I laugh at my inside joke and suddenly I’m proud of myself for not having a drink in over 2 weeks. So adult. This is progress.
“You’re back,” the cashier says, biding a bit of time while they guy fumbles with his bags. I say I am and I smile. The guy finally crosses an invisible line of demarcation that indicates he’s the former customer and I’m the current customer and, Bloop bloop, the cashier scans a receipt that revives my transaction. I swipe, say Thanks, and I’m out the door with all this food to cook for tonight’s dinner, and nothing to eat.
At the edge of the parking lot, a woman is selling the homeless newspaper, The Contributor, on the sidewalk. She’s bundled up so well she’s only eyes and the single folded newspaper she’s holding in front of her chest. Usually, this is where I avoid eye contact with the angry ginger Contributor salesman in his plastic lawn chair. I wonder if he died or won the lottery. Smug bastard. Glad to see it’s not him, I remember I have a dollar, so I wave at her and roll my window all the way down. Full transparency.
“God bless you,” she says as she takes the money.
I say You’re welcome, and wait for her to hand me my copy.
“Oh, it’s two dollars for a paper.”
I hesitate for a split second, dumbfounded and a little embarrassed for not knowing the price had gone up. How cheap I must look! If only she’d had a sign. Terrible Newspapers: $2. Blessings from God: free with $1 donation! I guess it really is a difficult thing to explain.
The car in front of me pulls ahead and I tell her Thanks as I roll up my window and drive away, wondering if I should file this under charitable contributions or the cost of doing business. Chump change.
Now I’m starving. Craving something… anything… instant gratification. I decide to drive through for a snack at Wendy’s because I don’t want to cook something to eat before cooking something to eat. Cheddar baked potato and a Coke Zero.
“What size, young man?” The woman asks me through the intercom. It always feels like a little win when they don’t think I’m a girl. I tell her Medium and figure it’s probably because I’m getting over a cold that made my voice raspy and sexy with phlegm. Whatever does the trick.
“I’ll get a raise if you get a large,” the voice says and I literally laughed out loud at her full disclosure. I try to imagine what it would have been like if, when working at American Eagle in college, I had told people “If you apply for the AE Credit Card today, I could win our store a pizza party.” How offended I’d be if someone said no. How I’d accidentally forget to take the security tag off their denim.
I think of the Wendy’s equivalent of leaving on a security tag and I say “Okay! let’s do a large.”
“Thanks. $7.67. Pull around,” she says and for some reason I picture the voice having huge boobs. Stuffed into a tired bra. Just in everyone’s face like What? This is me! This is alllll me. You welcome. I laugh to myself again and follow her instructions. I wonder if this raise business is true. If she’s even allowed to tell me that. Isn’t it cheating?
Like when I worked at O’Charley’s if I had said “If you order a premium cocktail with your lunch, and tip me 18%, and don’t dawdle after you’re finished, I’ll make an extra dollar on the hour.” I literally cannot imagine it.
At the window, a lady with a different voice takes my credit card. Her boobs are not huge and I can’t see her bra. I wonder if she gets a raise, too? The plot thickens and I’m really dying to know how this pyramid scheme works now. I guess she could feel my interrogation on the horizon because she hands me my card back and says “We get a ten cent raise,” and then lets the window close between us.
I wonder if this is a running joke. Are they recording the surprised reactions of customers throughout the day for use in a commercial? Look what a stand-up company Wendy’s is, putting customers in charge. Innovative. Recently renovated. So on and forth.
Mario Lopez stops me before I can drive away and asks What made you decide to give her a raise? And he winks at me like That’s what she said. Or it’s the deadpan anchor from local news asking me what I’d do with a 10 cent raise? And I tell her I’d need to confirm if it’s 10 cents an hour and, if so, how many hours I’m expected to work. Does it only apply on days that I upsell someone to a large? And is there a quota? How much would this really amount to after taxes? I mean, we’re literally talking nickels and dimes. They cut the interview short.
The lady pops back through with my drink and a bag and says Thanks. The window closes again. Show’s over. I can tell she isn’t coming back so I inch forward a bit and make sure there’s an actual potato in the bag. There is. But there’s no camera crew standing by.
I drove away, trying to recall who’s face is on a dime.