I realise, as the post-transaction compliments of a Mediterranean customer linger in the cool, cologne spiked air, that this place is probably my major social outlet and prime source of esteem building, and this epiphany leaves me feeling stale, like the top slice of bread that doesn’t get picked until that public holiday when you forgot to get groceries and you’re strapped for options, even then furtively glancing over at the pantry for alternatives.
I wonder if they notice that my lips disappear when I smile or that my right ear produces starkly more wax than its counterpart? Whenever I think about a member of the opposite gender I end up with headcold symptoms. The more water I drink the worse my headaches get. Swig. Throbbing left temple. Sip. Throat throwback. Gargle. Hand sanitation. Rub.
What if I end up like that guy who comes into the store every so often – the one with the silver combover and perpetual scowl – who was on a career roll for a few decades until somehow, somewhere, something in his brain detonated, leaving the innards of his skull a hardened, fatty mush? He spends his life in the same shirt and suspended trousers, both black and scattered with dandruff remnants, and his shoes are mouldy and maybe a size too big, and every person he passes wrinkles their nose in disgust, and if they’re travelling in multiples they whisper to each other – get a load of that BO.
Some even have stories to tell, like that one Sunday in church when he made derogatory comments about the female altar servers, or that conversation they were forced to sit through outside the local Bottleo, with four dollar Moscato dribbling down his chin and their final ruling whispered – this guy is a fucking racist – but at least he’s entertaining, right?
I pass each of my coworkers in turn on my way to the tea room, each stair a different face to say hello or goodbye to – are you just starting now oh you’re finishing how long were you on for?
And then we whinge or joke or simply ponder our respective lots, and how we got stuck with the four or seven hour shift, and which is worse, and who on the floor is going to make it go quicker or drudge along even more dismally, and we’ve almost completely passed each other now, sometimes daring to break stride completely in order to properly regale one another with tales about that regular bitch with her regular scowl, or the regular guy with his regular OCD, and – in leering higher pitched drawls of mutinous mimicry – would you swap my ten dollar note for some gold coins please, and – discernibly deeper now – what do we look like, a bank to you?
And no, you can’t have more than two baby formulas, you can’t have more than four cigarette cartons, there’s a cap on your consumerism, but it’s alright, we’re here to direct you to that wellplaced rack of uncapped glutinous desserts. You can’t separate your transactions for the fuel voucher, no, look behind you mate, there’s a line all the way past the fresh produce and deli sections, snaking around beyond the curries and Hello Panda chocolate dipsticks.
If you look properly you’ll see it ends right over there, by the clearance novelty instant custard flavours.
I watched a David Foster Wallace speech recently, in which he used supermarkets as an example of choosing to understand your fellow man, and it seems uncanny to not even consider it now, when that chronically phlegmridden man throws the receipt for his $54.30 transaction back, or when the woman in black who got done last week for trying to flow through the doubleentried self-serve without paying for two-thirds of her triple digit trolley tells the new guy that Peter Stuyversant Classics can’t be $19.50, and I tell her with feigned distaste for the system that the prices are always changing, that she should see those smoke jukeboxes at bars, Winfield’s like thirty bucks – oh really in monotone, really in mock monotone, here’s your change, enjoy the rest of your –she’s gone.
Or the tradie who tells his friend and the rest of the store that if the selfserve machine doesn’t offer cash out after he’s put through a 99c Turkish Delight he’s going to lose [his] shit, [his] fucking shit, he swears, and as they walk out afterwards they turn around to see who’s still watching, to make sure they caused a stir in the humdrum, because when you don’t really like your career, making it your job to disturb the peace in the carefully rostered lives of others seems like the most satisfying solution.
They all want to know when I get off, whether I can get them Rothman’s Gold in the 40s, not the 25s, sorry for the confusion, have a lovely night won’t you, they wink or grunt with chins depressed deep into their necks.
My job title retains its everevolving appendage – Check Out Chick or, Masturbatory Maid for the Middle-Aged Man and his Mental Misfortunes. The role now officially includes the humouring of ringless fortynineyearolds with their untraceable accents and differing strains of dry humour as I swing my mane around, bending over to find them their smokes or retrieve their dropped coinage, and in those four minutes we have together I look past their crow’s feet, their hereditary hair troubles, their downturned lips now set in place – so that’s why they tell me to smile –
and I see the young men, I see the vigour and the vitality, the hope for the return of a misplaced life, unexpectedly dashed or faded over time, and I think of the resigned woman on self-serve who lamented her forty-year-old son’s reluctance to leave home and find someone, because all his friends were getting divorced – she’d said it like they were all married to each other –
and I remember that shift ending on a solemn note, one in which I ascended each stair with just a little more rust and squeak than I’m used to, and I was reminded of the very plausible possibility that, just maybe, they stare and cajole and snap and flirt and optically invade my space because they’re looking for something they either lost or never had to begin with, and for those brief few moments at the end of the day I let them forget, or force them to look more closely inward, and maybe they’re not sure which is worse, but at the very least they feel something by the time the PayWave finally goes through.
So I’ll continue to smile and do my duties, because I always wanted to make a change, and if they can go home to their TV dinners and ramshackle weatherboard homes with some semblance of interest for the rest of the night then I understand why altruism gets such a good rap.
The light at the end of the tunnel, or through the sliding doors just past today’s promotional display, is made closer by the few who apologise for mistakes they didn’t make, who remember your last conversation, who stand there, their bike helmet straps slapping their cheeks as they say with smiles devoid of sleaze that filter out to their furthermost edges, see you next time. The ones eager to learn – where are the dates? The eggs? The tea tree oil?
When it comes down to it, we’re all social creatures, really, and for four hours at a time that’s exactly what I get to do, at its most basic level: dealing, assisting, looking to help those who are looking to feed their most basic needs. The woman in self-serve is trying to direct a customer.
Gluttony is everywhere, sloth towards the back, lust exclusive to Aisle 7, just past the man with the combover, between the Panadol and BandAids.