“Steak and ice cream, those are the essentials!” I said mirthfully to the man standing behind me in line at the grocery store. It was 11:50 pm and we were both getting some last minute items ahead of the impending snowpocalypse that was supposed to start in the wee hours of the morning.
He smiled back, proud of his stash of tasty cow-related products. We exchanged ideas about grilling and talked with delight about our upcoming food plans if we get snowed in. He looked at my basket and remarked “It looks too healthy, all I see is salad!”
I gave him a knowing grin and moved the bags of romaine lettuce aside to reveal a bag of Cheetos. “I’ve got my snow snacks ready too!” I said with unbridled glee.
He laughed heartily with the warmth of knowing he was talking to someone who loved food as much as he did. As we continued to talk, I noticed that his hands were worn, leathery. His accent also gave him away as a Latino, and based on these factors, I suspected that he had done a lot of manual labor in his lifetime.
When I finally made it to the register, I was relieved because the store was going to be closing in 2 minutes. The clerk also seemed aware of this fact but it created annoyance rather than relief in him as he eyed the lengthy line behind me that was going to keep him here past closing time.
His frustration was evident as he released audible sighs, typed angrily at the computer, and slammed the romaine lettuce into the plastic bag like it had said something offensive to him. The romaine endured the mistreatment with silent gracefulness.
Taking my cue from the romaine, I thought it best if I stayed silent as well as it seemed unlikely that anything I said would improve the clerk’s sour mood.
He reached for the microphone and growled “The store is now closed” as if to let all those behind me in line know that they were encroaching upon his wishes to leave.
He released another sigh and then glanced outside. A look of disgust grew on his face and in an acerbic tone he said “Man… all these fucking carts.”
I glanced outside as well and noticed that there were carts strew everywhere across the parking lot like toys on the floor of a daycare. It seems that with winter weather approaching, people often share more in common with the mindset of a toddler than with that of an adult.
After I gathered the brutalized romaine and my other purchases, I turned back to my newfound friend in line and we both with a smile said to each other “Have a good night.”
As I walked through the sliding double doors, the cold hit me with a firm slap on the face as a poignant reminder of the winter storm to come. I briskly scurried over to my car hoping to minimize my time in the harsh elements.
However, before I could make it there, I was again struck by the cart catastrophe in the parking lot. It was hard to ignore because I knew all too well what this meant for the clerk since working in a grocery store had been my first job, back when I was 17.
Typically, in the grocery store world, before you and the other employees can go home for the night several tasks must be completed: the registers must be counted, money must be placed in the safe, and all the carts must be brought back in. With all these carts strewn across the parking lot, that last step was going to be a veritable nightmare, especially with how cold it was.
Despite the clerk’s sour attitude and romaine roughhousing, I found empathy welling up for him because I knew how much it was going to suck when he had to clean up this cart kerfuffle.
Against the protests of my body to stay warm, compassion won out and I decided that I would make his night a little easier by gathering all the stray carts and putting them neatly into the cart collection areas.
Once I started into it, the memory reflex came back immediately and I was deftly navigating 3-4 carts at a time with the same dexterity as my former 17-year-old self.
The frigid temperatures still took their toll though and since I didn’t have gloves my hands were popsicles after a couple minutes. I was determined to finish it though, and kept at it despite how uncomfortable it was.
Then, when I was about halfway through it, I noticed my friend from the grocery line was putting his purchases away in his vehicle. After he was done, he didn’t get into his car like I expected, but rather, without a word, simply walked over to the fringes of the parking lot and started collecting stray carts as well. Together, we worked silently for the next 10 minutes until there wasn’t a single stray cart left in the entire parking lot.
When he was bringing the last cart over to where I was at, we exchanged that same knowing look as we had in the grocery store about how much we love food, that look that says “We’re on the same page my friend.” It was so powerful for us to speak so much to each other while saying so little.
Then, for the second time that evening, we both said to each other “Have a good night.” and with a smile and a lightness to our step, we each went our respective ways.
I don’t know my newfound friend’s name. I don’t know much about his life or how many hardships he has been through. I don’t know what’s happening in the clerk’s life outside of work. I don’t know if he was called in on his day off to work this shift before a snowstorm that nobody else wanted. I don’t know if he’s only working this job because his family is too poor and they need their 17 year old son to contribute financially. I don’t know if he the lowest in seniority at the grocery store so he gets stuck with a lot of the worst tasks.
What I do know is that judging him for his attitude that night would not have brought about any good. However, maybe some good can be brought about through kindness. Maybe the clerk will see how all the carts were collected for him and will go home smiling instead of grouchy. Or maybe he is in such a frazzled state he won’t even notice that all the carts are now neatly placed in the cart collection areas. Who knows? But it was certainly worth a shot, and at the very least, my newfound friend definitely got it. Without even speaking a word, he realized that this was meaningful and jumped in to help.
Maybe this is how the world gets better, one small act of kindness at a time. It seems so small yet I could also feel that it was so big. The act may be small, but kindness is big. Kindness is a behemoth, a giant, a titan. In fact, so much so, that it led one of the Biblical authors to write in Romans 2:4 “Don’t you realize that it is the kindness of God that leads you to change the way you think and act?”.
Kindness changes people. Not judgement, not punishment, not anger, not fear of hell or other such scare tactics. Kindness.
A good reminder to meditate on in a world so often devoid of it.
By the way, speaking of showing kindness, I think it’s time to show some kindness to my taste buds by opening that bag of Cheetos.