Once in a while, a customer manages to get all the way under my skin. That is when the blood and guts starts to fly. I am a visceral sort of guy. Blame it on my autism: surplus affective empathy, deficit cognitive empathy.
What follows is an example of what occurs when I reach my own personal boiling point.
Stanley (not his real name) showed up in Hope a couple of months ago. In his late fifties or early sixties, short and rumpled with silver hair and a little grey “soul patch” on his chin. He has a slightly elfin quality and my first impression of him was that I liked him. He talked a lot—always problematic—but I noticed that, when I responded, he would stop talking and actually seem to listen. This is a rare quality among this sort of lonely, aging overly verbal customer.
With hindsight, I may have overestimated his listening abilities. Over the next few weeks, Stanley came in to the store, over and over again but rarely to shop. Instead, he would stand around in front of the counter and talk about different “circles” of intelligence while trying to sell us on his scheme to improve people’s health via the right vitamin regimes. As a result, his presence became less and less ingratiating, and more and more grating. Even my wife—who generally has a lot more patience with difficult customers than me—took a dislike to Stanley, and found him demanding and obnoxious.
A few weeks ago, there was an incident with Stanley that I didn’t witness but only heard about from my wife. He was hanging out, as per usual, in front of the counter, talking away, only this time he managed to spill a Styrofoam cup of coffee all over the surface of the cabinet containing crystals and stones (a side business run by one of our employees). The coffee ran down inside the cabinet and required a major clean up. It also ran underneath my books, Prisoner of Infinity and Seen and Not Seen, which were propped up on top of the cabinet.
The books were slightly damaged by Stanley’s coffee, but, rather than apologizing, he started to spin a yarn about a millionaire writer he had seen on Oprah Winfrey. The writer had talked about how much he liked to buy old, used books; Stanley was trying to argue that he had really upped the value of my books by soiling them. When my wife tried to point out the difference between a soiled used book and a soiled new one, Stanley pressed on with his artful oblivion, with more nonsense about how millionaires like old books and he had really done me a favor.
When I checked the books, I found the damage to be very minor. A few days later, Stanley came into the store while I was working my morning shift. He took up his usual position and started talking. I had been on my laptop so I stopped what I was doing and gave him my full attention. I know that the best way to deal with customers of this sort is to engage them directly.
Stanley didn’t mention the coffee incident directly, that is, he didn’t refer to his own gaffe of spilling it; but, surmising I knew all about it, and perhaps fearing I might be annoyed with him, he started talking about coffee stains, used books, and Oprah Winfrey. Had I not been previously briefed by my wife, I would probably have been confused; as it was, I knew exactly what he was trying to say. After listening for a spell, I asked him, in a friendly tone of voice, what the point of his story was.
Stanley then asks me how many intellectuals there are in the world. I think about it for a second or two, before realizing there is nothing to think about and that it is what’s known as a “loaded question.”
With Stanley, it is necessary to read between the lines. Having done, so I realize he is trying to get me to acknowledge the limited market for my books, and why there is no reason for me to object if he spills a little coffee on them. I ask him why he’s asking and he babbles something incoherent that I forget now. He then changes tack:
“If you like, I could edit your books,” he says, pointing at the two books on display. “I’m a good reader and I could help you fix them.”
“Why would I want you to do that,” I ask, growing testy now, “when they have already been edited by professionals and published?”
Unfazed, Stanley continues to talk about his remarkable skills as a reader and a writer.
Stanley is not one to be daunted by any sort of response. He isn’t really talking to get to know me, or to work things out, only to hear himself talk—and to feel like he is being heard. He moves from subject to subject without pausing to check if he is connecting, if he is making sense, or if he is speaking accurately.
At one point, for example, he looks over at me and says, “You’re a real California dude, calm and cool.” (The irony of this will become apparent.) The comment comes out of nowhere and leads nowhere. Then he tells me” “You have a good heart, Jasun. I know that about you, because I’m sensitive to these things.”
I thank him politely; his words are a mixture of flattery and self-flattery. There is no real warmth in them; or if there is, I fail to detect it. Stanley even refers to me as a genius, but it’s not based on anything: he hasn’t read my books or any of my writing. It is smoke aimed lazily for my asshole, designed to be ingratiating and to show how discerning he is. After all, he seems to be saying, it takes a good heart to know a good heart, a genius to recognize his fellow genius.
Another customer comes in, a Native guy in his late forties, whose name is Mark. I used to find Mark annoying. He has a overly cheery manner and makes lame remarks all the time and then laughs as if he has said something hilarious. Over time, I have grown to tolerate him and managed to get on his wavelength a little bit. It’s just his way of feeling safe and he’s happy with a smile and an ebullient greeting.
He comes over with a frying pan. He doesn’t want to buy it just yet, he says, he wants me to hold it for him for a couple of hours while he goes swimming. The frying pan costs $2. I tell him, either pay for it now and I’ll hold it, or take it with you and bring the money later. He doesn’t want to do either.
Stanley takes the frying pan from Mark and places it on the counter beside him. “I’ll hold it for him,” he says, “right here.”
I grab the pan off him. “The hell you will,” I say. “You’re already in danger of overstaying your welcome here, Stanley, which means you won’t BE here by the time Mark gets back!” My tone is still light but I am definitely angry now.
I turn my attention back to Mark and try to explain the situation to him, how having several different staff members makes it complicated to hold stuff for long, etc., and how I won’t be here in 3 hours’ time. Mark snaps at me: “Just do it!”
That’s the final straw. “Fuck you!” I snap back. “You don’t get to tell me what to do in my store, buddy!”
It is not the most original comeback, but I don’t really give a damn by this point. I stride past Mark with the pan in hand, slipping on the floor as I do so but managing to regain my balance at the last instant before returning the pan to the shelf. Mark is already heading out the door, muttering to himself.
Stanley is saying, “Everybody needs to chill out,” and heads down one of the store aisles out of sight, leaving me alone again at the counter. I am hoping that my show of anger—which I realize at once would have been much more appropriately directed at him—will deter him from staying much longer. But he comes back a few minutes later and reinstalls himself exactly where he had been before, on the other side of the counter, and begins talking again.
He talks about Jehovah’s witnesses, and then reiterates how I have a “good heart.” I am only half-listening. I am thinking about how, the last time I passively let Stanley talk at me for ten minutes or more, I ended up cursing one of our customers. Maybe it is time for me to learn from this experience? I cut Stanley off mid-sentence.
“You need to stop talking so much, Stanley,” I say. He stops and looks at me. “I am really not interested in your story,” I add, for good measure.
He starts talking again and I can tell right away that he hasn’t absorbed what I have said.
“If you were really as sensitive as you say you are,” I push on, “you’d notice that I’m not actually ENJOYING standing here, listening to you talk. The reason is that you’re not actually trying to connect to me in any real way, which is why you don’t notice what’s really going on with me.”
Unfazed, Stanley begins to defend himself with more meandering drivel. I cut him off again with a different, more compassionate tact. “I don’t mean to be harsh,” I say. “Don’t take it personally. I know, you’re traumatized, and that makes it hard to connect—”
It’s his turn to cut me off now. “I’m not traumatized,” he snaps. “YOU’RE traumatized!”
I smile at his reaction. To my surprise, but also to my relief, his endlessly ingratiating monotone has finally changed. After criticizing me for a while, he then says something quite strange and unexpected.
“Your wife,” he says, naming her, “is a wonderful woman.”
I nod in agreement, wondering where this is going, seeing as how, just a moment ago, he had been moving into attack mode.
“I would never touch another man’s woman,” he says; there is an unspoken “but” at the end of the sentence.
“What?” is all I say.
He starts to change the subject. I ask him why he brought up my wife like that.
He says something about how he believes in being holy, which is why he wouldn’t ever sleep with my wife.
“So why did you bring it up?” I say.
But I already know why, or think I do. Stanley was very subtly insinuating that, since I was obviously too blind to appreciate his good heart and genius, unlike my wonderful wife, my wife was obviously too good for me. Once she saw the sort of guy I really was, however, he’d be waiting to step in. In the meantime, he would of course never . . . (etc, etc.). This at least was the way I made sense of his strange utterances.
Since Stanley keeps avoiding the question, however, I decided bring out the big guns.
“If I suddenly said to you, ‘You know Stanley, I would never fuck your mother,’ wouldn’t you wonder why I’d said that? Seeing as how it has nothing to do with anything?”
I am aware of other customers in the store, including a very large young woman, who laughs quietly at my comment.
Stanley tries to backpedal. He seems to be aware that he is quite exposed. I try to put him more at ease, shifting the attention back to me.
“Do you know how hard it is,” I say, “working here, pretending all day long with people? All I’m saying is, let’s at least be real with each other; let’s at least be honest.”
To my surprise, Stanley moves from passive-aggressive to openly aggressive. “If you want to be honest,” he says, “let’s step outside!”
I am taken aback for a moment. He seems to really mean it. I find myself laughing. “I’m glad you’re showing your real side at last,” I say. “This is what I’m talking about, Stanley!”
For some reason, Stanley—who is genuinely angry now—starts talking about money. He begins insinuating that I am an evil, money-loving capitalist there only to exploit people like him. He doesn’t care about money, he says; once again, he seems to want to assert his superiority.
By now he is trying to leave. He seems to realize he has crossed a line he didn’t want to cross; he has become overtly aggressive, even unpleasant; his affable and ingratiating persona has crumbled and now he is trying to put it back together again as if nothing has happened.
As he heads for the door, he wishes me a nice day, back in affable eccentric elf-mode.
“Fuck that,” I say. “Don’t tell me ‘have a nice day,’ Stanley. That’s just bullshit!”
Realizing he is not going to be able to restore the illusion before leaving, he opts simply to leave, grumbling self-righteously as he goes.
I call after him as he is still half in and half out the door: “And don’t come in again unless you are going to buy something!”
He pauses to look back at me. Now I have his undivided attention.
“Because, you know, Stanley, HERE IT’S ALL ABOUT MONEY!”
After that, Stanley exits stage right.
I feel relieved, but also a bit dazed.
The overweight customer comes to buy her things.
“Can you believe that guy?” she says. “He actually asked you to step outside?!” She laughs and adds: “I hate people like that, people who think they’re more intelligent than everyone else when really they’re just stupid.”
I nod in agreement. I am relieved by the instant reality check she provides.
Even so, for the rest of the day, I am aware of the incident and feel slightly concerned I went too far in confronting Stanley. On the one hand, I feel like my load is lighter than before; on the other, I wonder about having a “blow-out” like that. Maybe I was too hard on the guy?
It’s not exactly Travis Bickle, is it; but it does indicate that, if I pretend to be more easy-going than I am with my customers, eventually the shadow will manifest.
By the end of the day, I feel fine about it. I decide it was just the right amount of force to get the job done.
Confirmation comes a few days later, when I come in for my shift and Stanley is there. He reassures me by saying he is there to help someone shop.
“Don’t worry,” he adds. “I won’t try to talk to you.”
“All right,” I say. I don’t want to reassure him or to reinforce his insecurity, so I remain noncommittal.
That was about a month ago. Stanley came in yesterday while I was working, just five minutes before my wife came in to relieve me. I was friendly with him, to signal no hard feelings. He didn’t stay long, and while he was there he didn’t try to say much.
At first, it seemed like he might try and linger at the counter, but after a moment he left. He said goodbye to my wife, but not to me.
He didn’t buy anything.