I work at a convenience store. Let’s get that out of the way.
I also live in a small, isolated community in the Rocky Mountains, so the cast of characters is recurring. Many are cordial, if not quirky.
As an example of one of the “good ones,” one man comes in to use the soda fountain about twice per day, every day. He looks like Squeak from BASEketball if you add a lazy eye and twenty or thirty years. He’s always friendly, always polite, always laughs at my cheesy banter. He’s so soft-spoken, I have a hard time hearing him, but he usually asks me if I’m staying out of trouble. I try to have a sarcastic response ready.
Most people, if they’re not good, they’re at least acceptable.
A lot of people—not most people, but a lot of people, and certainly too many people—suck so much ass.
Take the woman who wanted
Marlboro Lights a pack of Marlboro Gold. Most people, who can be forgiven for neglecting to smile or say hello at the outset of this categorically human-to-human interaction, simply state the addictive life-hastener they’d prefer to purchase, and in exchange for reasonable proof of age and money in an acceptable tender, I provide their requested product.
This woman, however, was short on money. She wasn’t, however, short on theatrics. The following is an excerpt from her one-woman show, entitled Marlboro Lights are the Only Smokes for Me:
Oh my God. It’s been such a terrible day. Oh my God. Can I please, please get a pack of Marlboro Lights? Oh God I hope I have enough money. My ex-husband took everything from me; I just need some cigarettes. I’m so sorry. I’m just going through a really horrible divorce right now. My ex-husband is such an asshole. Today I found out that he was stalking me. Yeah, I caught him outside my house with this giant camera. It’s like, what the fuck, you know? I just need my cigarettes. It’s just been such a hard journey for me. What’s that? My card was declined because I only have, like, five dollars? (aside to audience) I already knew that. (winks) (to cashier) Oh if only someone would pay for my Marlboro Lights on this, the worst day of my life. No other brand will do it for me. My nerves are wild horses that will only be broken by the snap of the finest cancer sticks… What? You are not moved to pity? You won’t front the extra two dollars for my preferred brand of cigarettes, even as I am nearing emotional collapse? Well that sucks. (exeunt)
She left, only to come back with scant change she gathered from patrons in the parking lot. It still wasn’t enough. She left indignant and worked up.
Why did I share this person with you, and not, say, the three drunk college bros who crammed into our bathroom to piss all over the toilet together? Because I’m not supposed to feel empathy for drunk bros who piss all over someone’s bathroom just for fun. Instead, I’ll secretly hope that homophobic comments on their Facebook’s party photos come back to haunt them when they try to get jobs as high school gym teachers. I’m supposed to empathize with people with real problems.
The problem with problems is everyone has them. And problems aren’t all equal. Some are unavoidable; others we seem to create for ourselves whether we realize it or not. Frankly put, some of us have easier lives than others—and some of us deal with life better than others.
Knowing that, how am I supposed to feel about the middle-aged woman begging me for her favorite brand of cigarettes? Obviously I’m in no position to help her out or even care about her personal life, seeing as I don’t know her, and I’m only paid to sell things to customers, not buy things for customers. Still, should I feel bad for her? (I don’t, honestly.)
There’s a nice woman who comes in fairly regularly. Always smiles, always greets me. One day I noticed she was missing her right index finger. It even took me a couple encounters and over-the-counter, hand-to-hand transactions for me to realize this. You could call me unobservant, but I tend to collect details like that in my scrapbook head. (To be sure, it’s an eclectic scrapbook head, but it’s got a lot of stuff in it.) And while it’s pretty well acknowledged now that she’s missing her finger, we’ve never discussed it. She’s never opined at the difficulty of getting her wallet out or wishing to smoke with her preferred fingers. It’s a “problem” she has, and I’m reluctant to call it that because she’s probably figured out how to work with it by now—if you figure out a problem, you can’t really call it a problem anymore.
In a way, that makes her more like me: here is someone with an idiosyncrasy—an abnormality, a problem—and she’s dealing with it. I can empathize with someone like that. I also have problems that I deal with, and because I deal with problems myself, I can empathize. It’s as if attending to your own problems is a way of preemptively empathizing with others.
I can’t empathize with someone who would beg for a pricier brand of smokes. Or someone who would shoot up heroin in a convenience store bathroom then try to start a fight with an employee. Or a 22-year-old who gets upset when I ask for his ID. Or a single guy who goes to swingers parties (seriously, you don’t go to a potluck with no casserole). Basically, I can’t empathize with someone who has no empathy.
Empathy is being honest with yourself. It’s realizing that if you were raised in the Bronx instead of Boston, you’d most likely be a Yankees fan instead of a Red Sox fan. It’s knowing that if one tiny area of your brain ended up being just a little tinier, you might be working in a meat packing plant instead of an advertising agency. If your skin were a different color, you’d probably feel completely differently about politics, religion, music, clothing, food, or even the right height of trees. Had circumstances changed just a little bit for you—had biology flipped just one switch, or had fate loosened one bolt—you’d still be the same person, but completely different.
Given the nearly infinite possibilities for interruption and individualization, imagine how many people there are in the world who are, independent from circumstance, just like you—who are, in a word, human.
Remember that the next time you treat a convenience store employee like an obstacle to the rest of your day. It’ll be appreciated.