Making Change

By Christine Simmonds | Apr 22, 2021

South Thomaston — I exist within two separate but overlapping worlds.

In one world, I work as a writer and a reporter. I attend government meetings and business openings. I have access to information that the average person does not. I hear about events and happenings before other people do. I receive hot news tips and take dynamic photos of people doing extraordinary things.

In the other world, I work at a convenience store. I sell cigarettes, alcohol and lottery tickets. I make change for tourists filling up their gas tank on their way through town. I card people for age-restricted products, and regularly take verbal abuse for doing my job and following state laws.

And yes, for the past year or so, I have had to enforce masks and other COVID-19 precautions. Another aspect of my job that is way above my pay grade as a cashier, yet is still somehow my fault when people are upset about it. Because I am there in front of them and the person who made the rules they must follow is not.

Maine is now one year into COVID-19. That is a year of increasingly strident mask mandates, plexiglass between myself and the customer, sanitizing my hands in between each customer, and cleaning everything I can as often as possible.

One year of asking people who walked in through the doors plastered with signs that say five different variations of “no mask, no service” if they perhaps forgot their mask in the car, and could they please go put it on? There is still at least one every day that I work, usually more.

Thankfully, it has been quite a while since any customer was rude or even unkind to me about the masks, though.

I know at first the owners and supervisors of the company were very concerned about that.

Maine Governor Janet Mills has made it much easier for us by putting a mask mandate in place for all shops. Customers know they must wear a mask, and they know it is out of our hands to enforce this.

I will say that the people who own and operate the store where I work have been fantastic during this past year. Employees received bonuses, hazard pay, and our safety and comfort were always taken into consideration. I have heard about some other companies where they did not do a great job taking care of their essential employees during this time.

So now, again, most of the anger directed at me is based on state laws around age-restricted products.

That is absolutely part of the job I do not relish.

I do not want to be the fun police. I hate denying customers what they want to buy. Local law enforcement does not care if I like it or not, though.

I have learned to treat every customer without the proper photo ID as if they are an undercover agent. And sometimes they are. It has not happened to me, but periodically I will hear stories about other shops who were caught by law enforcement in a sting.

If this happens, the cashier is often fired, must pay the fine given by the state, or even both. As the guardians of the booze and cigarettes, our mantra is, “Your anger is not worth my job.”

While listening to NPR several months ago, I heard a discussion about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us as human beings.

Before social distancing, and before all events were cancelled, we all had many interactions with a wide variety of people. Not just our close friends and family, but also others on the periphery of our friendship circles.

According to the NPR experts, these interactions with what they call micro-friendships make us more kind, more empathetic people.

The lack of these interactions has, of course, had the opposite effect. People are suffering from a severe deficit of empathy, and those in the service industry have taken the brunt of it.

People are being unkind to others, are not tipping well, and are not being understanding.

In fact, this horrible behavior has become such a problem that the Retail Association of Maine began a program to remind others to be kind.

Think about that for a minute. The average person has become so awful that state agencies had to start a program.

I used to teach middle school, and the schools had to implement similar programs. We are not supposed to need such things as adults. We are supposed to know better than throwing tantrums in the middle of a shop because someone told us we must wear a mask.

Yet every month there seems to be a new video of some fully grown adult human being cussing, throwing punches, or destroying property because they have been mildly inconvenienced at a store.

In July of 2020, a bus driver in France was killed when he told a passenger to wear a mask.

A security guard in Michigan was shot and killed in March 2020 after enforcing the mask policy at the Family Dollar where he worked.

A police officer in Louisiana was shot and killed in February of this year at a high school basketball game when he told an attendee to wear a mask.

Last October a man in a New York bar shoved an 80-year-old fellow customer so violently that the man fell down, hit his head, and later died. What was their disagreement over? Masks.

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.

Despite the occasional challenges of working customer service, I do enjoy my second job most of the time. I make some extra money, I enjoy the company of my coworkers, and I am pretty good at the job.

I also have a chance to see people out in the community.

Recently I was working on a holiday, and it was incredibly busy. Apparently, many other shops in the area had closed for the day. I had a constant line of customers, with very few breaks in between. It was a challenge for me to use the bathroom that day, let alone have a break to eat something.

Toward the end of the day, a customer walked into the store. I recognized him immediately.

It was one of my high school teachers. Someone my family had a friendly relationship with, and I had known him most of my life. Just seeing a friendly face on that day was so nice.

I was so excited and relieved to see him. I greeted him by his last name, and he looked at me quizzically. Masks, combined with seeing me at an unexpected place like behind the counter at the store, quite often has this effect on people.

“Who is that masked lady?” he asked.

I grinned and broke the governor’s mask mandate. I removed my mask just long enough for him to recognize me, and even with his still on I could tell how happy he was to see me.

I informed him that I had recently seen him comment on a story in Village Soup. He looked at me slyly and said, “Was it written by a talented lady I know?”

I laughed, and all the tension of the whole workday eased off my shoulders.

While I rang up his purchase, he told me he was proud of the work I had done, and that he read all my stories.

We chit-chatted for as long as we could, and then he went on his way. That one positive interaction with someone I knew, someone I had a connection with, though? It was enough to erase the difficulties of the entire rest of the day.

In this brave new world, we must cling to the small episodes of happiness that we are afforded.

Be kind to each other.

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