Checkout Encounters by Rabbi Shlomo Landau
About two years ago I had an epiphany about shopping. It came to me one day as I was waiting on a long checkout line at the local supermarket and was watching the interactions between the customers and the cashier. I observed customer after customer proceeding to check out their items without even giving a glance at the cashier. Many of them were glued to their phones, and even those who were not on their phones basically ignored the human being on the other side of the counter assisting them with their purchases. Right then and there I made two commitments to myself: (A) I would make sure never to be on my phone when the cashier was tallying up my items; and (B) I would make a conscious effort to engage the cashiers in conversation. I pictured what it must be like to stand at a register for hours on end scanning item after item, the only sound being the steady "bloop bloop" of the scanner. I thought that speaking to the cashiers would break up the monotony of their job and also help them feel a bit more acknowledged.
The results of this little initiative have been astounding. Over the last two years of paying attention and making small talk, I have actually gotten to know some of the cashiers at Target and our local Shop Rite supermarket, who now greet me as a friend and look forward to my shopping trips. I have heard from the college kids who work the night shift just to help them to get by. I have met retirees who were forced to go back into the workforce as they realized that they could not subsist on social security payments alone. And I have chatted with people who were laid off from other jobs and were temporarily working as cashiers to help make ends meet. Often, they do most of the talking and I just listen, and other times I struggle to keep the conversation going, but I find that they always appreciate this brief encounter, as do I!
However, nothing prepared me for an incident that transpired a few months back. It was one of those winter days when we had just heard from the meteorologist that a blizzard was headed to town. This sent the locals (including this local) scurrying to the grocery store to buy the staples, as no one wanted to be caught unprepared. To their credit, the grocery store had every available cashier on hand and every aisle open for business. Still, the lines were longer than usual and people were a bit on edge. The line moved slowly, and finally it was my turn to check out my groceries. In keeping with my custom, I warmly greeted the cashier, whom I had never seen before, and casually remarked how busy things were. She shared with me that she had been working for hours consecutively, and her feet were killing her. I thanked her for her commitment and casually remarked that she was playing a crucial role in my family's safety and well-being by ensuring we would be well supplied when the blizzard struck. She replied with a tired smile. At that very moment, a woman I did not recognize who was shopping a few aisles over looked in my direction and in a shrill voice remarked, "Oh, my gosh! That's terrible! A rabbi (referring to me) who uses plastic bags for his groceries and doesn't even care about the environment! Tsk, tsk!" There was a noticeable silence as other shoppers looked my way. I was stunned, speechless. I did not know what to say. Suddenly, my cashier looked across the aisles and, with eyes ablaze, countered, "You be quiet now, don't you dare talk that way against him! He is a good man if I have ever met one."
I got my groceries together, muttered a brief thanks to the cashier, and staggered out of the store. The scenes of this brief checkout-encounter kept replaying in front of my eyes. I had never realized the incredible power of showing respect to other human beings. I had never met my cashier before, we had spoken for less than thirty seconds, yet she had stuck her neck out to defend me, an absolute stranger, as a token of gratitude for the respect she had received.
The Torah teaches us that the value of a smile to an impoverished person is actually greater than giving them something to eat! The food is quickly consumed and forgotten, but the feelings of respect and self-worth endure. So the next time you are ready to pay at the register, put away your phone, look the cashier in the eye, and say something nice. I am telling you, it pays!
Rabbi Shlomo Landau is the Director of Torah Links of Middlesex County.