The natural foods store has a new employee. He is clearly of retirement age, which isn’t so unusual. This is one of the things I love about local businesses — that they often hire people who might not be the “expected” employee of their kind of business.
I went into the store on what was, I think, his second or third day of work. Long enough to be left alone to do his tasks, not long enough that he was entirely comfortable or efficient with them. He happened to be working at the register that day. As I was shopping, I noticed how he would take his time doing his job, carefully making sure everything was accurate, and taking a moment to actually talk to the people coming through his line. He said “How are you” in a way that invited a true answer and a conversation, not in that dismissive, I’ve-done-my-duty way that most people say it. He took a little longer than most of the other cashiers, and he tried to make a true and real connection with every person who came through his line. Being the way many of us humans are when we get all task focused, some of the people who went through his line did not appreciate his friendliness. While everyone was polite on the surface, there was often an air of “just get it done so I can get out of here” subtext. I will admit that I was feeling particularly task-focused that day, so I kind of dreaded taking my few things to the register. It took a conscious effort to make eye contact and smile back, but I did it.
About a week later, I set up my massage chair at the same store to raise money for a local charity. He was working that day as well. From my spot, I could see all the registers. I could practically see the whole store, but the point is that I could see him working. He had the same manner, the same friendliness, and the same speed as he did the first day I saw him. He was still clearly learning the job, and still taking pleasure in starting a conversation with every person who came through his line.
I stayed for a couple of hours, met and massaged a few people, and raised some money. I packed up to leave and decided to pick up a few things while I was there. I got my items and went to his checkout line. He asked me, as he did everyone else, “How’s your day?” He commented on my chair and talked about how he loved to get massages. So I chatted a bit, then I asked him how his day was going. And I really meant it. I wanted to hear. He told me that every day was a good day, every day he was standing upright was a good day. I must have looked a little quizzical, because he went on to tell me he had three open heart surgeries in the past couple of years, so he was grateful for every single day. I smiled, we shook hands, and I went on my way.
It was a gorgeous afternoon, lovely bright sun slanting across the trees with their remaining leaves. Warm enough to walk outside, cool enough to sit close to someone. I started my drive home through the park — the long way — so i could enjoy a bit more of the day. About five minutes into the drive, it hit me:
Open heart surgeries.
Three of them.
Three times, this man had his body invaded and literally broken open to try and fix something. Three times, he had fallen asleep with the very real and probable idea that he would not wake up again. Twice he had done this and gone through recovery and maybe thought he would never have to do it again, but he did.
And here, on the other side, here he was working at a natural foods store and trying to make connections with people who mostly just wanted to finish their tasks. Here, I thought, was a man who learned the very hard way how important it is to wait. Just a minute. And see the person in front of you.
And this is another thing I love about local businesses. Because they hire from outside the “norm,” every visit is the potential to learn something valuable. If you wait. Just a minute.