Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Hopeless Romantics

I had the weirdest customer transaction ever last night. I'm going to transcribe it as closely as possible, and you see if you can figure out where things go off the rails. The dramatis personae include "Me", and a dumpy late-middle-aged lady who looks harmless but is buying two romance novels, hereafter referred to as "Lady." Which isn't intended to imply that all readers of romance novels are untrustworthy, but I've determined that regular readers of the genre have a significantly higher rate of crazy than other customers. There's a lot of pent-up frustration in that demographic.

Anyway, I was up at the register backing up a co-worker for a few minutes after she got hit with a last-minute wave of customers. I call for the next customer and lady steps up and hands me her two romance novels.

Me: Did you find everything okay?
Lady: Yes, thanks.
Me: And do you have a Fnorders Rewards card?
Lady (handing me a $20): No.
Me (finishing up the transaction): Would you like a bag?
Lady (snapping): I'll just take my money and go elsewhere!
Me: ...
Me: Wait, what?
Lady: (suddenly staring evil bloody daggers at me)

I closed the till and handed her back her money; she put it in her wallet and stomped off. I looked around, looked at my co-worker, looked deep into my soul, trying to figure out what the fuck just happened. I went to find the supervisor on duty, Meg. The old bat had gone and complained after she left me, and Meg had been as nonplussed as I was.

"She came up to me -- her voice was shaking with anger -- and said, 'I was trying to buy some books, and I was asked if I wanted a bag!' And I stood there waiting for her to continue, but no, that was the whole complaint."

After some discussion, it turned out that the lady was pissed because I'd asked her if she wanted a bag, instead of just assuming that obviously she did and giving her one.

And there are some customers that you want to run down the street after, stop them, shake them, and shout, "do you realize that you're completely fucking insane? Well do you?" The frequency with which this sort of shit happens is shocking. Recently we've been moving a lot of stuff around, re-arranging sections within the small and strangely-shaped space we've got. One afternoon a woman came up to me on the verge of tears asking for help finding her favorite author in the romance section. (See? It's always the fucking romance readers.) I showed her that we'd only moved the section over three feet, and reversed the flow so that the alphabetical arrangement started at the other end. Everything was still there. "I just want to tell you that this is very bad for people who don't deal well with change!" And she dabbed at her eyes and walked off clutching her book.

And I thought to myself, that woman must have an incredibly shitty life. How do you survive getting that upset over insignificant things? How do you drag yourself through your day, and through your miserable existence?

Fun fact: the customers who say things like "I'll just take my money and go elsewhere!" are, in my experience, exactly the customers we're happiest to be rid of.


Sometimes in the evenings at work, the store is dead and there's not much do but stand around. Those are actually the moments when I hate the job the most. But I think to myself, maybe someday things will be so bad -- maybe I'll be sick, or always in pain, something like that -- that I'll wish I could come back to a night like this one instead. And I think that I should try to live one night at work as if it was that night, and I've come back from something much worse just for a while.

Other times I think I should try to do a day at work where I'm really cheerful and enthusiastic. But I think I'd probably overdo it and lapse into sarcasm.

I'm kinda bummed about David Foster Wallace killing himself. I'm waiting to see if anyone explains why he did it -- I mean, we can all guess, we've all been there, but I'm just so disappointed in him, and I'm hoping that there's something more than garden variety despair to justify it. It's the same way I felt when Hunter S. Thompson offed himself -- it's not that I don't get it, it's that you're supposed to be better than that, man. Thompson's life had been an endless frantic party that had finally ended; Wallace was the definition of infant terrible and actually managed to write the Great American Novel, as well as a body of other excellent work, but maybe his best was behind him. So you were in pain, so you were depressed... and? As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut had to clean the charred corpses of the old people, women and children his countrymen had incinerated, out of blackened holes in the ground. And he bore up under that horror for sixty-something years. More than that, he used it to help the rest of us bear up under the endless little horrors that make up our own lives.

When you undertake to write about what it means to be human -- and isn't that, after all, the point of art? -- then to end your creative life through violent self-destruction is to contradict everything you've spent your life creating. Suicide implicitly says, "everything I said before? That was all bullshit, life doesn't mean anything." It's ending your career with an irrevocable failure that degrades every prior accomplishment. It's the disclaimer that will hang over every word you ever wrote forever, saying that none of it really counted.* For David Foster Wallace to have had talent and genius and empathy and grace in the amounts that he did, and then end all that kicking and swinging at the end of a rope makes me ashamed on his behalf.

It's not that I don't get it. I do. It's that he was supposed to be better than that.

*Which would be pretty apropos for Wallace, come to think of it.
3:21 PM ::
Amy :: permalink