“Is there a discount on that for wasting my time?” is what I expected George to say. While he wasn’t doing heel clicks and high fiving people the second time around, he also wasn’t looking for a fight, and that was an improvement. I’ve decided that George (not his real name) and I have something in common; he always expects the worst in a situation. The problem with that outlook is that a great deal of the time, you bring on that outcome. I expect the worst, but more in order to be pleasantly surprised. George on the other hand, expects it and brings that result on by being something of a cranky bastard.
“Why did you shake that customer’s hand when you saw him?” my coworker asked after George had left happy. Or George-happy at least, which meant he’d said thank you and didn’t look like he was going to punch me in the face.
“I helped him yesterday, I was taking care of something for him.”
“Yeah, but why did you shake his hand?”
At first I shrugged and laughed it off, “I went to private school, we shake everyone’s hand when we see them.” Which is true, by the way. Picking out private school boys is easy; the year after they graduate, they’re the guys with terrible facial hair, the patchy, awful beards grown because they finally wouldn’t get detention for having whiskers, ten years out you can still pick the private school boys out of crowd by their khakis and blue blazers (and usually a white shirt with red tie) just a little too tight because it’s the same blazer they wore in high school, but the easiest way to ever identify a private school boy is that you can introduce him to a crowd of a hundred and he’ll shake every damn hand there. It’s a thing. Reunions are tough, but thankfully few and far between, and holidays home are worse, but depending on the group the handshake can become the man-hug: handshake, one armed hug, two slaps on the back (preferably slapping harder then the other guy).
The truth is, it was partially the knee-jerk reaction of the, “Good to see you” handshake when meeting a familiar face even while thinking, “Who is this guy?” But ultimately, I’d made the decision the day before that should I see George again I’d shake his hand, call him Mr——, and take him up to the register to ring him up. It’s the same principle as when a customer stops you to ask a question. Whatever you’re doing you stop, you put down your stack of books, and you give them your undivided attention.
In high school, I had a crew coach who made us do sets of eleven when it came to push-ups, leg lifts or the other countless physical hells brought down by the wrath of a Jesuit priest who would follow us in his battered Chevy Corsica on our runs to shout… encouragement. The idea behind it was to train us for the sprint at the end of a race, to condition us to push for one more even when we thought we were done. If you can do eleven then why not push for fifteen, and if you’re at fifteen then twenty is within reach.
Before crew, I had a Tae Kwon Do instructor who would line us up against the wall during our Saturday morning class, tell us to plant our foot and do ten side-kicks while he yelled out the count. With each kick we would yell, a vocal manifestation of the energy behind the side-kick. He would walk the line, adjusting our stance, reminding us to keep our arm up, holding his hand high above our head to aim our kick at. When we reached ten he would yell, “One more! One more! One more!” The ‘one more’ would usually surpass the initial count, the exercise becoming a competition to see whether our legs or his voice would give out first. These two coaches, in vastly different sports, understood not only how to train us to set goals, but also to never be satisfied simply by achieving them. They wanted us to fight to blow those goals away, to be prepared physically and mentally for the sprint, to always be ready for one more. It was to prepare us to take that next step when anyone else would have said they’d gone far enough.
JoAnn Falletta may be partially to blame for this entire situation, as is dead Russian composer Reinhold Glière. The Buffalo News’ Gusto section, specifically their recent review of the of Falletta conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performing Glière’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Il’ya Muromets’ at Carnegie Hall, is also on my list.
The problem stemmed from my store carrying two recordings of this symphony, one featuring Falletta and the BPO and one by somebody else. The one by somebody else was put on hold for George when he called. And the one by the BPO? That one, the only copy we had, sold about an hour before he came into the store. That’s how I ended up on the receiving end of George’s rant involving how much money he spends in the store (I don’t care), how rude he found our music staff (no they’re not, and also, pot calling the kettle black?), and how he’d driven all the way to the store the day after a blizzard (so you drove here on a nice day).
“Now I want to know what can you do for me,” he finished.
I was a bit lost for words. He’d thrown a lot at me. What can I do for him? Usually, the customer asking that is holding out their hands so we can throw money or free items into them until they finally love us again. Nothing makes me feel less inclined to help a person then having them berate me and then expect to be rewarded for having done so. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, that’s how the situation is resolved, if not by me then one of my bosses who then berates me as well for not throwing a gift card at the customer myself. Money isn’t the answer, or at least it shouldn’t be our answer. A gift card doesn’t solve the problem, it pushes the problem down the line to someone else because now that customer knows were giving away free money every time they raise their voice.
“Not much,” he scoffed.
I agreed. There really wasn’t much I could do, and certainly nothing at all that would put that CD in his hand at that very moment. Underneath it all was realizing that it was our mistake–an honest mistake, I will stick by that, but our mistake nonetheless, and I wanted to make right even if George was a jerk. I called our only other store to have a copy of it, one about twenty miles away. After triple checking the product number, conductor and album name (loudly so that George could hear) I asked them to put it on hold under my name. I told him that I drive out to the other store and pick up the CD, but wouldn’t be able to get there until later that evening; I would call him when I was back at this store with the item on hold for him. He didn’t seem as though he believed me. He didn’t say thank you.
Round-trip from my house to the three stores and back is about forty miles. I spent most of it considering whether this was even worth it. Should I have just told him he was out of luck and let him yell at me a little more? What did it matter? His behavior certainly didn’t deserve the time I was taking out of my day to do this.
This wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this, but at least that time it was entirely my fault. A couple had shipped books out to their son, who was being held at a correctional facility. They were an early Christmas present for him, and at least they’d shipped out as early as they did, because I stuck the wrong address label on them. His books went to Pennsylvania and instead for Christmas he got a handful of body building magazines and Robert Greene’s “The Art of Seduction.” Why would you even—you know what? No, I don’t even care.
They were sweet and understanding, and I ended up going to two different stores in order to get the books shipped out by the next day. In that case I didn’t have a problem doing it, they just as concerned that I didn’t beat myself up over it as they were about the books themselves. At least they knew what happened to their son’s package and we could get everything straightened out. Most people aren’t as patient Mr. & Mrs. Wuhr. They didn’t want anything other than to know we could take care of it. I’d forgotten about that couple until after I’d picked up the CD. For that memory alone I’m glad I did this. It’s important to hold onto any bit of kindness you encounter. Some days they’re all you’ll have.
“What can you do for me,” he’d asked.
Not much. And initially, there wasn’t much I wanted to do. I was tired, my day was almost over. I didn’t have the energy or the patience for this garbage. He was a jerk. And that’s when it’s important to smile, when you have to smile. You have to take a deep breath and push yourself to eleven, and then to fifteen, to twenty. You have to find a way to go the extra mile, or go ‘above and beyond’ as we call it at the store. One more. There wasn’t much I could do. One more. I could do this much. One more.
I expected the worst when he came back. A demand for a discount or repeating his complaints from the day before. Instead, he remembered my name. He spotted me first and called out my name. His face was still blank, but his voice was softer this time around. So I set down the books I was putting away and went over to him. I smiled and shook his hand. I told him it was good to see him and that I’d checked on his CD as soon as I came in that morning to make sure it was right where I’d left it. I rang him up for ‘Il’ya Muromets’ and a few magazines he also had, and told him to ask for me if there was anything else he was looking for. George said thank you this time, and that he appreciated how quickly I was able to get it for him. He still didn’t smile though. Next time, next time he’ll smile. Unless he’s a robot that requires the sweet symphonic stylings of the BPO to recharge at night….
If you’re not going to listen to what I tell you, then why did you ask me in the first place? This one’s for all those customers that will ask for a book and then question everything I do to find it for them. I work here. I have worked here for a long time. Please, stop judging me only by my incredibly handsome face, I also know what the hell I’m doing. So shut up, just shut up. If you were so great at finding books, why’d you even ask for my help?
Guy: Yeah, can you help me? My kid wants this book, it’s called Alice, by Stacy Cordially. And I need some, what are they, wimpy diaries?
Me: Ok, we might have a copy of Alice in our Biography section, and then I’ll take you back to our Kids’ department.
Guy: Why are you looking here?
Me: Because Alice is a biography.
Guy: Oh. Is it supposed to be here?
I always want to ask them why I would be looking for a book that was not supposed to be here. Why? Why would I see that we had zero in the store and go look for it anyway? How stupid do you people think we are, that we would look for something that does not exist?
Guy: Why are you looking under R, her name’s Alice.
Me: She was a Roosevelt, so it’s supposed to be under R.
Guy: But it’s not there, great.
Me: I don’t know, that’s why I’m looking at the shelf.
I’m muttering to myself while scanning the shelves. She was born a Roosevelt but married a Longworth, maybe its under L? Not there, double-check R, just in case. I know this because I looked at the cover of the book. This isn’t time consuming research I did, I read the cover. Problem is, the book came in back in March. March to December. We’re three days out from Christmas and this book hasn’t been seen since March. This book could be anywhere.
Me: All right, I’m going to check in the back for Alice, but I’ll take you back to the Children’s Department, and you can take a look at the Wimpy Kid books.
Guy: Yeah, where are those wimpy books, are you going to show me those? Where is that?
Me: Yes. They’re in the… I’m taking you there right now.
We get back there, I point out the newest book and the new blank diary that looks just like the main character’s diary. That’s pretty cool. I assumed he would just need the newest book in the series since Wimpy Kid is like crack to these kids. They swift fury and determination with which they pre-order these books is unparalleled outside of sci-fi/fantasy fandoms.
Guy: We have up until the last three or something, where’s the rest of them?
Me: The rest of them are on the shelf here, they’re numbered on the side, here’s 5 and 7. Let me check for number six.
Guy: Aren’t these numbered, who are you supposed to know the order they go in?
Me: Yeah. There are numbers on the side. That’s… that’s the order they go in. Ok, here’s number six, there’s also a boxed set with five through—
Guy: But you don’t have book three?
Me: Why… you said you had that one. You needed the last three.
Guy: Which ones are those?
Me: Five, six and seven.
Despite having them in my hand and holding them out to him while I say this, the guy turns around and starts scanning the shelf, then pulls off books 5 and 7. I try to point this out to him, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s searching for book 6, which I had to get from another display because it wasn’t on the shelf. Which he should know, because he was standing there the entire time.
Guy: Well that’s too bad though, you don’t have book three.
Me: You don’t need… forget it. I’m going to go find Alice.
That was under C in Biography, mistakenly shelved by the author’s last name, which was Cordery. I’ll see you the day after Christmas when you want to exchange your Wimpy Kid books for the ones I tried to sell you in the first place. You won’t have the receipt either will you?
This is the Captain: the Prequel. Christmas 2012. My first experience with the legend himself. If I asked a few of the booksellers I’ve worked with over the years, I’d probably have more stories about this guy than anyone else. He likes looking at the nudies over in our Newsstand. He likes describing them loudly but in his defense, the Captain would do this whether or not anyone was around. That’s makes it sound like he’s not a bad guy, right? Maybe he’s just, you know, not rowing with both oars in the water?
Well, at this point, he’s been told enough times. He’s been told not to describe these pictures at the top of his lungs. He’s been told not to show said pictures to other customers. Whether or not he understands this behavior is wrong doesn’t matter. It’s been made clear that he should not do it. Or at least we thought it was.
I get called over to our coffee shop because there’s someone acting… well, a little weird. He’s been talking to himself for a while, rearranging items on the counter, he went up to someone in line and sniffed them, he’s ripping open sugar packets on the condiment bar and making little Sweet ‘n Low mountains. I watch him for a bit. He sees me watching him. He abandons his Splenda ski-run and makes a b-line for our display of chai tea cartons lined up in front of the espresso machine. I make my move.
Me: Is there anything I can help you with?
the Captain: Oh, what do you want? You’re here to throw me out?
Me: Yes sir, you need to leave…
the Captain: And who are you? You the boss? You’re the captain?
Me: No sir, I’m not a Captain, but I am the—
He touches the brim of his captain’s hat and winks at me, the son of a bitch.
the Captain: You know what you need? You should have some of those marshmallows, those little marshmallows. Do you have any of those back there?
Me: I’m afraid I don’t have any marshmallows..
I’ve been herding him towards the front doors during our exchange. Each time I step in front of his path he adjusts to avoid me, which is remarkable as he refuses to look at me. It’s not far now, perhaps thirty feet or so to the front doors.
the Captain: Let me ask you a question— I’m going! Before, let me ask you, do I have time to pick up a woman? On my way out?
Me: No, you do not have time to pick up a woman.
the Captain: Not even one of these?
He points at a female customer we’re passing and asks her if she’s a librarian. He walks away before she can answer as there are four other women nearby he must ask as well, and I apologize quickly before following after and attempting to steer him left to the doors.
Me: No! No one here is a librarian! I’m sorry about him, I’m so sorry. No, she is not a librarian either!
the Captain: And what about you? Christmas shopping! Huh?
Me: The extent of my Christmas shopping is none of your concern..
the Captain: Hey, let me ask you a question—
Me: Ok, I’m just going to call the cops now..