Whenever I have an encounter that I believe encapsulates the political and social issues of the day in just a few moments, I wonder if I’m making too much of nothing. Like Pat Sajak said in this week’s podcast, I worry that I’m perhaps overanalyzing the situation like we do a Dickens’ passage. Nevertheless, after much mulling, I’ve eventually convinced myself that it’s a worthwhile anecdote, and one worth sharing with the Ricochet community.
One of my many hats is as cashier at the University of Minnesota bookstore. This week, we had our annual Valentine’s Day-themed Rose Sale. Here’s how it works: each register has a vase of fake roses that have different discounts attached to their stems, so when customers walk up to make their purchase, they pick a rose at random, we reveal their discount, and it’s applied. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it’s generous; every rose has at least a 20 percent discount, so customers are guaranteed a minimum of a fifth off their purchase for just walking up. It goes up by increments of 10 percent, reaching as high as 80 percent off.
On Friday afternoon, an hour or so into my shift, a middle-aged, curly-haired woman – perhaps a professor, maybe a student too though – came up to my register with eight or nine books.
“Would you like to pick a rose to get a discount?” I cheerily chimed, putting years of retail customer service into practice.
“Oh yes,” she replied as she reached for her dyed-linen flower, “I’m hoping to get a good one.” She plucked her selection and she handed it to me.
“Looks like you’re saving 20 percent,” I informed her.
“Ah, man. I was hoping for a bigger one.”
“Well, 20 percent off isn’t bad,” I responded. “And you get to keep the rose too,” trying my hardest to provide a “glass half full” outlook – on something that was already good to begin with.
I proceeded to ring up her books, which were all leisurely and recreational; none had tags signifying they may have been textbooks for a particular course. I believe there was a travel book in there too. She carried on reminding me how much she would’ve liked a bigger discount, how great it would’ve been if she got had gotten at least a 40 percent one. While still acknowledging her desires, I continued to politely point out that she’s still getting a pretty good deal. After all, it’s better than getting no discount at all.
It rang up to about $93. “How much would it be if I got a 40 percent one?” Somewhere around 70 bucks, I told her, meaning she was saving a little more than $20 already, the price of a book itself.
“Well, I can’t pay for that $93, so I guess I’ll have to pick one that I can’t get,” she said sharply. I smiled and waited for her to proceed. With little consideration to the line of people she was holding up, she took her time, flipping through the pages, reading the précis (for which I have Mr. Lileks to thank for teaching me that word). She may have said something under her breath once or twice, but she eventually chose one after several minutes. Some novel set in India.
“Okay, comes out to $74 then.” She reluctantly handed me her card, I swiped it, and bagged her books.
Just as I was handing her the bag, she looked and said: “I just wish you had been a more compassionate person throughout all this.”
I was slightly taken aback. “Well, it’s just sort of the standard procedure for this sale – you get what you picked,” I responded with care.
“Standard procedure, shmandard procedure.”
“I’m sorry – I’m just doing my job.”
“Just doing your job?” she answered much louder than before, attracting eyes from other customers and coworkers. “You know who else was ‘just doing their jobs’ – concentration camp guards.” To anyone who was half-listening at this point, they were now paying full attention. It’s not every day they’re in the midst of someone analogous to a concentration camp guard.
I let out a subdued “Wow” before saying, “That’s a bit of an extreme jump to make.”
“I don’t think it is at all,” she retorted. “You’re showing the same line of thinking as they did.” I stood there, resisting the urge to validate her statement with a response. “And you know what – you made the choice as an individual that now led to this situation,” she went on.
“No,” I calmly but assertively responded. “You made the choice as an individual when you chose that rose that had the 20 percent discount. That’s why we’re in this situation.”
She seemed to realize that I got her with that one, so she scampered back to her fallback line: “All I can say is that you’re just like a concentration camp guard.”
The mood was noticeably tense, and this conversation was hardly worth anyone’s time – not even hers – so I decided to put an end to it.
“Well, then if, in your mind, the difference between me being a morally sound individual and a concentration camp guard is about 20 bucks, then I guess I am a concentration camp guard,” I replied. “I can’t refute that if that’s really how you distinguish between the two.”
The standoff came to an end with that shot. She must’ve acknowledged how trivial she was being. No, she didn’t say so, or even apologize for comparing me to an instrument in genocide. She simply turned away and walked out the store.
Fortunately, my managers and coworkers supported my handling of the situation; she was undeniably out-of-line, they said. I carried on with the remaining three hours of my shift before slipping into the weekend.
Now, where does this reflect our overarching societal problems? The real question is, where doesn’t it? It began with a lack of accountability, as she is fully responsible for that interaction even occurring, despite her wishes to same I was the individual with the utmost choice. She made a series of decisions that day – to go to the bookstore, what she would buy, and how much of a discount she would get – and when the results of her decisions were unfavorable, it was someone else’s fault, be it the equal opportunity system itself or the person facilitating it.
If the situation isn’t lining up as planned, then those responsible in her mind are inherently bad and therefore fair game for name calling, no matter how nasty and inappropriate those names are. Whether it’s harassing a cashier or Wall Street, this rationale is what justifies making a scene at a register or camping out in Zuccotti Park, doing so until she gets what she not only wants, but apparently deserves. Never mind the generosity already exhibited by providing her automatic savings; it wasn’t enough. Somehow though, it’s someone else who’s the greedy and selfish one.
I’m curious to see what other examples, contradictions, inconsistencies, and analyses we can pull out of this encounter, ones that I may have missed. In fact, a part of me wonders if I was in the wrong at any point in my handling of the situation, so feel free to share.
Or maybe, as I suggested in the beginning of this post, I made a mountain out of a molehill (make that a gopherhill, to fit my school’s mascot). But as Jane Murdstone said in Dickens’ David Copperfield, “I don’t profess to be profound; but I do lay claim to common sense.” I can only at least hope that I had the latter when I look back at this situation.