I picked this particular line at Wal-Mart because a pretty girl blew me a kiss. Hey, I’m just a guy and I knew my wife would understand. She knows I am a sucker for cute, outgoing, bubbly 20-month-olds that blow me kisses.
I got in line behind her and the very young man she was with. There were a few people ahead of us so I spent my time flirting and learning about my new friends. I wasn’t sure what his connection to the little girl was. He was young. He could be daddy, but he could also be big brother. I told him his daughter was beautiful . . . then followed it with an expectant raised eyebrow look as I waited for his reaction. There wasn’t one, just a thank you. Bingo . . . daddy it is.
I didn’t pry too deeply, I just found out the little girl’s name. We’ll call her Olivia. I found out that she was 20 months old and that he had picked her up after he got off work. I assumed from how he was dressed that he worked as a mechanic or in a maintenance shop. There wasn’t much in their cart; a box of diapers, a gallon of milk, some baby food and some wipes.
Things started happening. The young man loaded his goods onto the counter, his phone rang and the guy behind us started being a jerk. He answered the phone while he unloaded the cart. I assumed it was his mother. I assumed this mainly because he called somebody on the phone mom. I am quick like that. Apparently the gentleman behind me didn’t appreciate the speed at which the young man multitasked. He made several deep inhales and exhales while shifting from foot to foot and cocking his head to one side. You know the whole “why is this taking so long because it is all about me” look. Not quite as animated as a 14-year-old girl waiting to buy her first Justin Bieber ticket, but every bit as annoying. I couldn’t imagine anybody with a goatee and bowl haircut would have anywhere else to be, but whatever.
The young man unloaded as he talked. He told his mother that he was at Wal-Mart buying diapers and a few other things. There was Charlie Brown teacher noises on the phone. He replied that he didn’t know what “she” did with the remainder of the supplies he dropped off with Olivia. More Charlie Brown teacher. He said essentially that all he could do right now was get more diapers and wipes and deal with other issues later.
“You can pay now . . .” bowl cut behind me said. “Anytime.”
The kid looked up and mouthed the word “sorry.” Then he said something that I will remember. In response to more droning on the phone he said, “I know you would buy them mom, but it’s not your job. It’s my job. I will drop Olivia off then I have to go to class.” He hung up the phone and prepared to pay for his items. This made jerk face behind me only marginally more happy.
I should mention now that I am legendary for picking out the fastest moving lines in grocery stores. I have my own technique. I look at the people in the line and their purchases. I consider the individual check out clerks. I take this info and select the fastest moving line. I select the fastest moving line by invariably getting into the line that has several price checks, the lady with the filing cabinet full of coupons and the elderly lady who wants to know what the “scanned price” is on every item before she selects it for actual purchase.
Unfortunately for Olivia’s Daddy and Bowlcut behind me, my mad skills held up and the line next to us whizzed along as he ran his card through the machine. He entered a PIN and . . . nothing. The cashier asked him to run it again. Nothing again. Bowlcut started to vibrate. “Seriously?” he moaned.
I shot him a did-your-mother-have-any-children-that-lived look and turned back to the kid. He was starting to feel self-conscious in a way that only a person whose bank card isn’t working can understand. The clerk made some adjustments. She asked if she could run it as credit. He said yes but didn’t understand what she meant. He entered his PIN instead of hitting “Exit” for credit as instructed.
This caused Bowlcut no little anguish. “Don’t . . . touch . . . the buttons . . .” he stammered while making little button pushing motions with his fingers. He tilted he head back and moaned.
The young man looked at the cashier. She took his card and scanned it herself. Nothing. “I know I have money in the bank he said.” Olivia was demanding attention and he picked her up.
“Yeah, sure you do,” said Bowlcut said under his breath to his wife. We will call her Mrs. Polyester-stretch-pants-in-a-color-that-doesn’t-occur-in-nature. Poly for short. “That’s why your card is working so well.” I took a small step backward and accidentally stepped on his toe.
All of us judge, but that doesn’t mean we have to be judgemental. I had gathered some information about this young man’s situation and made some judgements. It seemed he was trying. He was working, he was providing for his daughter, he was going to school and he wanted to do it on his own. That impresses me. For almost 5 years I worked in the Division of Public Assistance issuing food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance. We had some clients that were trying and some . . . not so much, but I didn’t see as many young men like this one come through our office as I would have liked. He was trying. Yeah, I judged him and his intentions, but not in a bad way. Gazelles judge lions all the time and nobody has a problem with it. In my estimation, it’s how judgements are used that make the difference.
The young man was now almost completely humiliated. “I can go to the ATM and get cash,” he said. “I know the card will work.” The cashier said ok, but to please hurry, she would keep the register on his purchase until he came back.
There was a gagging sound behind me as Bowlcut succumbed to fit of half sentences and questions as Olivia and her dad went to the ATM.
I watched him go. I was dying inside for this young man. Mostly because I have been right where he was standing, so to speak. How many of us have had our card rejected or, back before cards, not had enough cash for a purchase? How many of us have not been humiliated in public like this? Everybody who has not been in a similar situation stand up and do the Macarena. I say this because I hate the Macarena and I feel good knowing that nobody reading this is doing the Macarena right now. We’ve all been there.
I watched the kid standing at the ATM. He was on his second attempt with his card. I looked at the register. It said $37.48. It wasn’t $37.48 worth of beer and cigarettes. Every item in the cart was for his daughter. Bowlcut was over his initial swoon and was heavy sighing again while Poly comforted him.
I looked down at the credit card in my own hand. I am maybe the luckiest guy on the planet. I have a loving, happy family and we are all well provided for. I am past the stage of life that Olivia’s Dad is in. That doesn’t mean that I don’t remember. I do remember. I remember that somebody helped me.
I reached over and ran my card through the machine. The cashier smiled at me. “Are you sure?” she asked. I nodded. “Positive,” I said. She tapped the keys and a receipt spit out and she handed it to me. “You’re a good man,” she said.
I thought about that for a second. “You don’t know that,” I replied with a smile. “But thank you anyway.” She didn’t know that for sure, but she was making a judgement. Not all judgements are bad.
“Do me a favor,” I asked the cashier. “Make sure he gets his stuff and don’t tell him who did it.” I picked up my items to move to another register. I didn’t want to be there when he got back.
“Did you pay for all his stuff?” Bowlcut asked. I nodded. He looked at me like a hog pondering a wristwatch. “Want to pay for my stuff, I could use a hand out.” Poly nodded in agreement.
I moved to another register. It wasn’t a hand out. It was a message. I hope the message that Olivia’s Dad got was that the entire world isn’t against you. Mostly we are on your side. Once you show that you are willing to work you would be surprised at where help might come from. That is the difference between a hand out and a hand up.
Thank you for reading. I am back from a brief vacation and I will see you again soon on This Side Of The Diaper.