“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” —
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
A girl with an unused-up face was working at the counter of Rite-Aid. She seemed to be in training, still; wearing that horrid polyester polo shirt made in China. It was too large on her, too loose; un-pretty, untucked — and without a name tag.
“You’re fine for today,” her manager must’ve told her in the morning, when he completed her “uniform check”. “But after the training is over, you must remember to wear it, everyday.”
The fucking name tag! That’s the rule. There are always rules, in jobs like this.
I often squint at those tiny plaques that sadly dangle by their pins on chests of any customer service personnel. I try to decipher them, figuring out the pronunciation; and I try to guess the origin. Sometimes, the names are easy: Maria, Sally, Mark, AJ. The names longer than three syllables are always harder — but they make for a perfect conversation piece. But in cases like that, the name bearer — the name tag wearer — is often sick of being asked about it.
There was this one time, though, a Nigerian man began to tell me his. All I could hear were endless consonants and glottal stops. He assumed I was an American. He was getting a kick out of it, making a scene. Immediately, I felt ignorant and humiliated. Because I thought I had at least some clue — more clue than most — about what it had to take for him to get here.
So often I stand at a counter — or behind a plastic window — and I desperately calculate the timing of thanking these people by their names; as if that would make the insignificant exchange of ours more meaningful. No. I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey.
And I am sure they still go home in the evenings, complaining about their managers, who nag them about silly things like schedules, lunch breaks “by law” — and those fucking name tags.
“Why can’t he just leave me alone?!” they ask the rhetorical question of their equally exhausted spouses, at dinner, their words belonging to forsaken prayers. They get drowned out by the hyped-up realities happening on the television screen. And in the morning, they’ve gotta do the whole thing all over again. And if they aren’t running late, they’ve gotta remember: to grab the fucking name tag.
Still, I prefer to say these names out loud. No, I don’t expect to please. And I don’t expect to make up for the misery of all the corporate routines they must obey. I just want a little bit more humanity, in places like this. In jobs like this.
There was already plenty of sadness in the fluorescent lights buzzing above the unused-up face of the girl working at the counter of Rite-Aid.
“Why must they be running these things right now?” I thought, noticing that despite the blazing sun outside, the rows of lights remained lit. Lit and buzzing.
And yet underneath their cold rays whose pulse can send an epileptic into an episode, this girl appeared very pretty. She had long spiral curls on each side of her brown face. And because she wore not a hint of make-up, I quickly imagined her on some simple, yet still exotic shore, drinking milk out of a coconut cracked open with a machete.
I wondered if she was a student of some sort, at a community college, working this job “just until…” Or if she was a daughter of an immigrant, meant to be grateful by that very definition — for the privilege of her minimum wage and health benefits. And if she goes home, exhausted and confused:
What exactly is the meaning of this daily drudgery? And when, exactly, does it end?
And then, there was her face. It was unused-up. It had no traces of bitterness, no histories of lovers’ betrayal or disappointment. Other humans hadn’t gotten to her yet. And she smiled a little while holding a pack of cigarettes, immediately humiliated, waiting for her trainer to find the time to explain the exact procedure of selling those things. She waited, while her customer — a strange, muttering woman — scoffed and squinted her eyes at the name tag of the manager standing nearby. Watching. Why must we get off — on other people’s humiliation?
It would take a few beats for the girl to settle down. The scoffing customer would storm out, muttering about her own miseries. The trainer would return to his routine, indifferently. The manager could be traced by the jingle of his keys, as he walked away into his hideout, behind the swinging door. (At least, he had a space of his own.) But the girl would have to regroup, in front of us, and wait for the awkwardness of the moment to pass.
“I think she’s open,” an old man behind me was breathing down my neck.
Yet, I insisted on holding my spot until I was called over. The girl with an unused-up face deserved her dignity.
And dignity — takes time. And space.
“I can help the next customer in line,” she said. Her voice was light, resonant. It better belonged in a choir of St. Patrick Cathedral.
I walked over:
She wasn’t wearing a name tag, you see: that fucking name tag I used to have to wear myself, at my very first jobs as an immigrant in America. But I refused to treat her good, yet unused-up face as nameless.
So, she would be Love — the bearer of my motha’s name — at least for a few seconds that day, at Rite-Aid. She deserved a name; and if not love — she deserved some dignity.
And dignity — takes compassion.