My husband’s cousin, Sandra, works at K-Mart as a cashier. In the last twenty years of his life Arthur talked to her once or twice a week—they were as close as brother and sister during a good part of their lives. Sandra has told me many times since Arthur died how much he helped her bear the burden of her job.
Sandra had a thirty-year career as a telephone operator. She retired early when the job ceased to exist in the late 1990s. The telephone company offered her the choice of a one-time payout of the money she’d accrued in the pension fund or a monthly check. She thought she could have a comfortable retirement by investing the money so she took the payout. This looked like a good plan in the early 2000s, but after the crash of 2008, when she lost a huge part of her savings, she took the job at K-Mart to supplement her income. She thought it would be temporary, and now, seven years later when she’s nearing 70, she’s tired. And stuck. She can’t do without the pitiful sum she makes working part-time at K-Mart.
Last night after spending Thanksgiving with some friends I came home to a phone message from Sandra wishing me Happy Thanksgiving. This was my first Thanksgiving since Arthur died and she wanted to make sure I was okay.
Sandra mentioned she would be starting work the next morning at 6am and I realized I had not given a second’s thought to Sandra’s reality this week. Not only would she be working Black Friday as usual, she had worked Thanksgiving morning also.
Arthur was always there for her on these hard days. He’d call her up and get her laughing, telling jokes and distracting her with memories of their youth; He’d help her see the absurdity of the human race as reflected in the people that paraded through her check-out lane. They’d laugh at some crazy customer or two or three she’d encountered that day, helping her drain some of the stress and frustration and depression away.
I thought all this as I listened to Sandra’s message, and made myself a note to call her Friday afternoon.
I called about 3:45 today, and she said she was just getting in the door after an 8-hour day. She talked some about what it was like—the endless lines; she the only white cashier; a male customer who was cruel to her, saying she made him want to vomit; the endless eight hours broken only by one fifteen-minute break and thirty minutes for lunch.
I told her about the oddness of my drive yesterday. The route to my friends’ house took me by one of this town’s major malls and the Best Buy store. On my way to their house at 3:30 the parking lots of the mall were completely empty, and Best Buy had just a few cars and 25 people or so in line.
Then at 11 as I was driving home the traffic was almost like a week day afternoon, the parking lots of Best Buy and the mall wee packed, and people were driving aggressively like they were in a hurry to get somewhere else. Cars were pouring into the mall’s parking garage. I’ve left these friends’ house many a night in the last year at 11 and usually there is almost no one on this thoroughfare at that hour; there’s the feeling of a small town that’s rolled up its sidewalks. There was something surreal about all this frantic activity after the almost spooky quiet of the afternoon.
Sandra talked of an older couple buying games and toys today. They said they’d spent 2½ hours in line at Wal-Mart the night before buying video games so the wait at K-Mart seemed like nothing in comparison.
She told of a little old man waiting in line at her register with only a package of Depends in his arms. “Poor old guy,” Sandra said. “I tried to get him through my line as fast as possible. Imagine how bad it was that he came to K-Mart on Black Friday just for Depends!”
But, I thought, surely he could have bought those at a pharmacy. Could it be that some people are so lonely they shop on Black Friday just to be part of the crush of humanity?
We got on to the Paris bombings and ISIS and the Russian jet downed by the Turks, and since we have very different political opinions, I skated through that as quickly as possible. Sandra is very afraid right now. She feels unsafe. She thinks we need to strengthen our military because our country is at risk.
I told her that I thought it was in the interests of the powerful to keep the populace afraid so they could more easily pick our pockets. Don’t play into their campaign of fear.
Then Sandra said something quite funny: “I think what we should do with these terrorists is make them work the register at K-Mart on Black Friday wearing a Santa hat.”
I laughed out loud at the thought of an ISIS jihadist standing for 8 hours in a Santa hat, having to put up with stressed Americans buying huge amounts of [mostly] useless crap. What an ingenious form of torture for an Islamic fundamentalist.
But then I quit laughing when the message sunk in: that’s how horrible her job was today; it was a fitting punishment for a terrorist.