A customer sang to himself while completing his transaction at my till. I said you must be enjoying your day. Oh, he said, I always sing—drives my wife crazy. I am just a happy guy.
I was appreciative of this and wanted to let him know. I thought that a brief story on how singing enlivened my own life might suffice. I said, you know, when I started this job I didn’t want to be here… I was angry, in fact, it was not…. He interrupted: oh, but this job is not so bad… the people who own it are good people.
Sure, I said, but what I wanted to say is that when I started… He interrupted again: it’s a good place to work. It’s a fine place.
Yes, for sure, I said and then, before he could interrupt me a third time, I rushed through to the end of my story: and singing is the only thing that got me through those bad days. But he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t even feigning interest. His eyes were glazed over; his smile complacent. I tried to find a message or hidden meaning to his expression but I realized there was none. The smile and singing were his barriers against life.
Later that day I spoke with one of the purchasers about a certain de-icer. On its label was a precaution against using it on new concrete and decorative brick. I asked him which was a better product: the de-icer or road salt? The salt is corrosive, he said, the de-icer is best.
But the label infers that it, too, is corrosive, I said. He smiled a smile that I couldn’t quite read and said: Salt is corrosive.
Yes, I hear you, I replied, but the label…
Salt, he interrupted, is corrosive. He was smiling as he said this, a thin sort of smile that did not quite reach his eyes. I understood it then, could finally read the lips that only mimicked pleasure. This smile was also a barrier, but one that came with a message: I am not going to let on that I do not know the answer. Stop wasting my time; just do your job so I can do mine.