Many of us have seen what happens when, without thinking about it, we jam a stick in the spokes of comprehension for some unprepared clerk. For instance, for a cash purchase of $7.85, hand over a $10 bill and a dime and watch the signs of life drain from the clerk’s face as you hold out your hand for the $2.25 change. It’s not as much fun with today’s digital cash register operators, but most often you’ll still get a WTH look at first, followed by surprise when the answer is revealed. Apparently, doing simple arithmetic in one’s head is an archaic exercise not taught in schools since the Eisenhower administration.
Sign at CVS: “For top shelf, please ask for help.” I’m not interested in taking home your top shelf, but if you could help me reach that pink-and-blue beach chair up there, I’d be grateful.
At my bank drive-through recently, I slid a check into the drawer and told the seasoned clerk in the window that I wanted to cash it. I’ve seen this particular clerk many times in the 15 years I’ve done business there and she has always been friendly and efficient. I get a couple of small checks each month that are made out to me, Butch Lawson. Years ago I would hand over my ATM card at the same time since “Butch” is my nickname, but I don’t get challenged anymore. That is, I didn’t.
“Good afternoon, how may I help you?”
“I’d just like to cash this, please,” I said as the drawer slid back into the building with my check.
The nice clerk slipped slightly out of view to tap some data into the computer on her workstation. She leaned to her left to take another look at me and went back to her keyboard.
Another lean and look.
There’s a car behind me in my rearview mirror.
I asked her, “Do you want my bank ATM card?”
She leaned in toward the microphone and said, “No, I don’t need it,” then dissolved back to her right.
Two minutes go by with no sign of life in the window. Two cars in my rearview now.
A lean into the window and, “What’s your phone number?” she asked.
“Landline or cell?”
“Whichever we have in our system.”
I can’t know that, so I give her both and ask if she wants my card now.
Again it’s, “No, I don’t need it,” and she slides out of view again.
Another couple of minutes go by. Two cars and a truck in my rearview. I turn off the truck engine and turn up some Bill Monroe.
She slides into the window again and asks, in a frustrated-sounding voice — and I’m not making this up — “Do you know your first name?”
Now, this is exactly the kind of moment that I live for. The opportunities here are many and the target has no idea of the level of sarcasm she has unwittingly uncorked. I don’t know where to start; it’s almost too easy! A one-word answer? A story involving a witness protection program? Chemo-induced amnesia? The hot-rod car dealer formerly known as Bob?
But, in an uncharacteristic moment of compassion, I come clean and give her the name that my grandfather handed over to me. She still doesn’t want my card, but now, with all my personal information plus a phone number she didn’t have before, she can dish out the small amount indicated on the check. We know it’s a small amount since it comes from this nonprofit newspaper, but hey, it got me another column.
I take ownership of the delay causing the line of cars behind me. I could have just gone inside with the check, my ID, my ATM card, my mother’s maiden name, my last 10 ZIP codes, and a certified copy of my baby footprint and been out of there in under two minutes with no inconvenience to other customers. I apologize to those other folk, but if you were one of them, you now know that, presented with a chance to make your wait in line even longer, my need to move along for your sake was stronger than my need to exercise my well-developed and underappreciated sarcastic sense of humor. In retrospect, I think it may have made a better story if I had set it free.
Butch Lawson is an observer of life. He lives on Bailey Island.