This week I went back to work at the thrift store. Besides taking a break from my (time & energy-intensive) series on Hollywood, that means more blog-posts about my “boring job dealing with boring people”—as one bitter and disgruntled commenter put it.
In fact, there is nothing boring about my job (though it is exhausting); and I wouldn’t say I have any boring customers, exactly, though I do have quite a few obnoxious and difficult ones.
The day before officially going back to work, I went in to confer with fellow workers on some changes we plan to make in the store to make more efficient use of the territory. A regular shopper came in, Judy, a middle-aged woman trying to pass for young who dresses like a teenage biker most of the time. (I like Judy, and it was only today when she was so obviously down that I noticed how old she must actually be. Glamour magic, perhaps?)
She had her right arm in a cast and she looked miserable, so miserable that I couldn’t face asking her how she was or what happened, because I knew it would entail hearing all about it. My wife was there, however, and she asked.
Judy explained how she had fallen down the stairs and, as I had anticipated, went into a litany of misfortunes she had undergone in recent days. As she was talking, I noticed that she was wearing an inverted pentagram around her neck. While she continued to lament her run of bad luck, I deliberated for a few moments before finally saying what was on my mind.
“It could have something to do with what you’re wearing around your neck,” I said, in as casual a tone of voice as I could manage.
As I expected, she rejected the suggestion immediately.
“It all depends on your point of view,” she grumbled.
I didn’t bother to explain that I wasn’t speaking from an ordinary Christian perspective but from a lifetime’s experience of the occult. I had vaguely, and vainly, hoped I might be able to inject some humor into the remark, maybe with a crack about Rosemary’s Baby; but the gravity of the situation somehow prevented it.
(This reminds that I just found out there is an O.T.O branch in Hope. I found nothing listed online, so it must be operating under the radar. Curioser and curioser.)
The next day was my first back at work. When I arrived, K.D. was minding the store. She told me that a woman was in the changing room with a big pile of clothing and that she wanted it all for free. I explained that we put $10 limits on free clothing, and she passed that info on to the woman.
When the woman finally emerged from the changing area, I realized I knew her as an especially difficult shopper. In fact, as a shoplifter: she had stolen a coat off the outdoor rack before Christmas, and I had shouted after her as she hurried down the street. Her reaction at the time was defiant, unrepentant, and hostile. I was angry because no one has to steal from us (since we give clothes away to those in need), but brazenly taking things without asking is so obviously disrespectful it is hard not to take personally.
I ran into her again later in the day while I was grocery shopping. I saw her tossing litter into the street and, since I was still angry with her, I made the mistake of trying to admonish her again. She began to shout and rant at me like the crazy person I already knew her to be. I snapped back, all the while thinking, “I am having an argument with a crazy person. Who’s the crazy one here?”
It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that, on my first day back at work, after more than two weeks holiday, this was the first customer I had to deal with.
She came to the till with a pile of clothes, so I explained to her the $10 limit.
“This stuff is for my boyfriend,” she said. To my relief, she seemed quite cogent and polite.
“It’s a $10 limit for both of you,” I said, “coz he’s not here.”
I started going through the stuff and asked her which ones she wanted.
“I want that,” she said. “Want that. Want that. Want that. Want that.”
“OK, so that’s $10.”
“Can I have those three too?”
I kept it light and friendly. “Nope. $10.”
“Can I have this body suit please?”
“No, I’m sorry, we have a $10 limit.”
“There’s only four things.”
“No, there’s five here. One, two, three, four, and five.”
“Can I have this body suit?”
“It’s a $10 limit,” I said. “It’s also kind of a one-time thing.”
“I need these pants too. Can I have these pants?”
“You know,” I said, still calm and friendly, “there’s a free store at the Harvest church, where they actually do just give away all the clothing? We do it in special cases, and we generally just do it the one time; it’s not like you can just keep coming here and shopping here for free, because it’s for people who don’t have clothes.”
“OK well, I don’t have any clothes. My motorhome burnt down.” (I had, but it was some time back.)
“I did hear about that, yeah. But, um…”
“Can you let me have these others things?”
“No, it’s a $10 limit. Sorry. There’s a limit. Do you have anywhere to wash your clothes?”
She said she did and then she asked if she could exchange one of the items for another item. I asked her again if she knew about the Harvest church, where she could get all the clothes she needed for free. She remained on her best behavior and listened respectfully while I spoke. I selected the five items and bagged them.
“Can I have these for my boyfriend?” she said, holding up a pair of jeans.
I was pretty much worn down by now, and ready to relent. “Just these?”
“Can I have these shirts too?” she said, pointing at the pile of T-shirts she’d brought to the counter.
“No. You can have one thing. You want the jeans?”
“Can I have the shirt too?”
“You’re making it hard on me,” I said.
“A shirt and a pair of jeans?”
“You’re making it hard on me,” I repeated. “If he wants some clothes, he will have to come in himself.”
To my surprise, she accepted this, took her bag of free ladies tops, and left. A moment later, she came back in.
“I forgot my gnome!” she said, and strode into the back area, into the changing room.
I could still hear her lamenting: “Where’s my gnome? She took the gnome out of here?”
“Who did?” I said, wondering how long this would go on before I lost patience.
“The Lady. I had a gnome sitting on the ground.”
“Was it your gnome?”
“Why would she have taken it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t have taken it,” I said.
“Well it’s not there now!” She was sounding irate and I could feel my own irate-alter gearing up for full on attack mode. I told it to hold on, that it wasn’t needed just yet.
I explained to her slowly and clearly that K.D wouldn’t have taken her gnome, though it was possible, likely even, that she had assumed it was from the store, and put it back on one of the shelves.
“Well it’s not there now!” she said again and began looking around some more. After half a minute she came back to the front.
“Where did she go?” she wanted to know.
“She left,” I said.
“Can you phone her?”
“No. I don’t have her number. The only thing she would have done with it is put it back on the shelf.”
“She didn’t put it back on the shelf, anywhere.”
“Then I have no idea. Are you sure you brought it with you?”
“I’m sure I brought it in with me.”
“Well, I can’t explain it then. She wouldn’t have just taken your gnome. I can guarantee you that.”
“Well it’s not on the shelf.”
“Like I say, I can’t explain it. She wouldn’t have taken it.” Mercifully, I was starting to feel amused by this point. I was tempted to add something about the Bermuda triangle or Bigfoot, but she cut me off.
“She took it!”
“OK, well, she works here on Thursday so…”
It was at that moment that she spotted the gnome on one of the shelves. “I see it, I see it!” She ran over to it. “He’s right here, I got him right here.”
She came back cradling the gnome in her arms. As she left, she thanked me. I wondered if she had really brought the gnome in with her, or just stolen it in the most elaborate manner. I didn’t much care.
Shortly after that, the unbalanced, possibly schizophrenic ex-marijuana dealer (let’s call him Jim) came in with some freshly cooked ribs. He started eating them right in front me. They smelt really terrible.
“That smells really terrible,” I said.
He responded with something unintelligible.
“Say it again?” I asked.
His response was even less intelligible. I decided to ignore him and try and concentrate on reading Visup’s piece about the Roy Radin murder on my laptop. I figured all Jim really wanted was a place to eat his ribs and not feel like he was being seen as a problem. Trying to talk to him, to make him feel at ease, was likely to have the opposite effect, and ignoring him seemed the better option. If I could relax and carry on doing my thing with him standing there, I figured, that would signal acceptance better than a stream of ever-more strained attempts to make conversation. This meant putting up with the awful smell and suppressing my annoyance with him; but it didn’t seem like an overly Herculean task.
“Is one of the ladies in?” he said, between mouthfuls.
“Just me I’m afraid. Do you want to sit down and eat that maybe? I don’t really like having to watch you eat it. It’s kind of gross.”
He smiled at that and said, “Yararnatrrisum?”
Although I had no idea what he had said, I thought some response was in order. “I’m a vegetarian, so.. .”
A few bites later, he said, “Is there a way I can ask you a favor?”
“You can ask, yeah.”
In a long-winded way, he asked for a $10 loan until what sounded like “Ministry day,” which he explained was on the 27th or the 28th of the month, when he got paid.
“That’s three weeks away,” I said. “It seems like a bit of a long stretch. I won’t even remember it in three weeks.”
He just stared at me. The look conveyed nothing except that he hadn’t liked my response. After five to ten seconds, he went back to eating his ribs, and I went back to reading the article.
Another street person came in, wanting to try a shirt on. I told him to go ahead.
With a mouthful of rib-meat, Jim said something else that was unintelligible as he picked up another rib. To my relief, I saw it was the last. I pretended to understand what he’d said.
“Mm-hmm,” I said. “You’ve started so you’ll finish?”
He ate the last rib noisily, while I sighed quietly and tried not to inhale the fumes.
It was at that point that Jim started to whisper unintelligibly in a menacing way.
“Getting windy, huh?” I said, seeing the clothes outside were blowing around.
He held out the now empty plastic rib-tray. “Can I…?”
I held up the garbage can and he dropped it in; I closed up the bag quickly to trap the smell. I offered him a tissue; he took it and spent a while cleaning his fingers. After that, I held the garbage bag open again for the tissue and he growled something I couldn’t understand. After that he stood for a long time at the counter, saying nothing.
To break the silence, I made pointless small talk about the Seedling newsletter. I explained that we hadn’t done it this time but Nat (the bookseller) had done it. There was no reason to think Jim was interested, but it was something to say.
He grunted something.
“You ever notice that was maybe the problem?”
I laughed as if had made a funny. “Maybe. I got tired of doing it. It was a lot of work.”
He sniffed loudly, then asked if “the ladies” were in tomorrow. I said they were.
“Who’s on Friday?”
After a pause, I asked if he wanted a couple of bucks, “Just from me to you, not from the store.”
I handed him $4 I had in my pocket. He accepted it and wished me a good day.
I guess maybe that was a bonding experience, because he came in again the next day and we actually had something approaching a conversation, albeit a very surreal one. It was about Jimmy Page, Lucifer, the Loch Ness monster, money, an off-planet influence that was leading all humans astray, and the root of all evil. It was the kind of cosmic conversation that can only be had with schizophrenics or lifetime drunks in bars, in which I had to fiercely improvise answers, or questions, in response to Jim’s darkly gnomic utterances, and in such a way as not to offend him and manage to stay on his wavelength.
Too bad I didn’t record it. It was probably confidential anyway.
When he left I saw him joined by another street person and they walked together having what looked like a perfectly normal conversation. I wondered if Jim was able to turn his craziness on and off, whenever it suited him.