Friday, January 6, 2012

I Want My Two Dollars!

So, the other day, I ran into the grocery store to pick up a couple of items for the Princess. When I say a couple, I mean three: a sandwich, a drink, and a toiletry item that I promised the Princess I wouldn't share with the general public.

Now, this particular establishment did not have any of those self-check stations that I like, so I had to get into the express lane. The line wasn't long, and it appeared to move swimmingly, when, of course, the woman ahead of me made it grind to a frustrating halt.

Her problem was this: she had a coupon that the cashier couldn't honor. A $2 coupon. For a product she wasn't buying. And the coupon was expired.

Now, at this point, the frustration began to rise like bile in my throat. This woman was adamant that the cashier take her coupon. The cashier pointed out that there were rules for this kind of thing, to which the woman replied that she had meant to use the coupon on an earlier visit but had forgotten it was in her purse.

Meanwhile, I just stood there and stewed. I toyed with the idea of offering this customer the $2 myself. I'd make the offer in all earnestness, but my voice would be dripping with sarcasm because, after all, we'd be talking about two freaking dollars here.

Then, as the manager came over to haggle about this coupon even more, I remembered something. I remembered the late David Foster Wallace's excellent essay, "This is Water," in which he argues that a truly consciously-lived life is about how you act in moments exactly like this.

See, I could easily just lose my mud over the delay this customer was causing, and I'm absolutely sure that most of you would sympathize with me. If I'd tweeted out something like, "Being held up in the Express Lane by an argument over a $2 coupon," I'd get dozens of digital nods & fist-bumps. We all know what it's like.

But, taking Wallace's advice, I began to imagine this woman's circumstances to see if I could come up with some explanation that would make her current behavior not just sensible, but sympathetic.

What if she needed that two bucks? Or what if she really, really needed everything else she was buying and was only $2 short? And what if the reason she needed what she was buying was because it was for someone she was taking care of, like an invalid? What if she'd just spent a long night taking care of someone who was ill or incapacitated and then needed to buy these things to take back to them and was only $2 short but found this coupon in her purse as she fished around for extra change to try to pay for her purchases?

Or, more dramatically, what if she was being watched, and whoever was watching her was making her try to get the coupon honored or something bad would happen? What if these imaginary kidnappers were holding her invalid home-care patient hostage and threatened to kill them if this woman didn't come back with these exact items, for which she was only $2 short?

As I engaged in this flight of sympathetic fancy, the manager and the customer worked things out -- by which I mean the manager just gave the woman a $2 credit on her purchase and threw the coupon in the trash.

In the meantime, I now regarded this spendthrift crusader in a new light. Of course, I'm no idiot. Chances are, she really was just an obstinate miser who wanted her two dollars for no better reason than she wanted it, other people's inconvenience be damned. But I had made the effort to see things from her point of view.

And that, my friends, is the point of all this. Sorry it took so long to get to it.

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