I can be myself with her. If I’m not feeling cheerful, I don’t have to pretend for her. I can just act straight, no apologies, here I am. And her, too. She’s the same way with me.
Sometimes she’s warm with me. Her touch will linger–her fingertips rest longer than I would expect in the palm of my hand. Other times she wants to hide herself away, and I let her. Who am I to scare her up out of her hole? I’ve been in that hole, too, and I don’t want anyone bothering me.
It has been like this between us for five years now. I’ve never been able to last that long with anybody else. My dry cleaner, for instance. He closes every Saturday at 6:30 P.M., and I used to go into his place every Saturday at about 6:25. It got on his nerves. He was always grumbling under his breath. “You last customer, as usual,” he said one evening, with what seemed like real disgust. And if I happened to switch my schedule around and pick up my clothes in the morning, he would say, “Oh, so today you come early!” I couldn’t win. So of course I had to leave him for someone else.
And there was once a waiter at the coffee shop around the corner … after a year or so of pleasant exchanges, cheeseburgers and 25 percent tips, we got too close one evening. It was a winter night in 1995. I was alone, he had no other customers, and we got to talking. I made the mistake of telling him a few things I shouldn’t have. The next time I came in, he looked at me and said something big and friendly, like, “Hey! So how’d that thing turn out?” That was it. We were over. After enduring that final meal, I never went to that coffee shop again.
But with her, it’s different. She’s a professional, for one thing. She never comments on what I’m buying, neither with word or glance. For the last year I’ve gotten black coffee and bananas for breakfast there. She could’ve said something about it–she could have said, “No more pound cake, fatty?”–but she’s above that kind of thing.
I’ve learned to leave the banana on the scale, the way she likes it. She punches in the price on her cash register. She doesn’t look at me or the banana, partly because she can’t afford to invest anything of herself in the customers and the things they buy, and partly because she has the noble disinterest of a judge.
She’s skinny. She has bangs. Sometimes she has tea hair. Sometimes she has what looks to be a Korean novel open beside her, in the narrow space between her cash register and the next one. The look in her eyes is dead straight, but not without kindness. She’s never apologetic about being a cashier, never gives a sign that she thinks the work is beneath her. And while she is never overly polite, she does her job efficiently, briskly.
Her fingers are expert on the cash register buttons, but nonchalant. The way they move says, “I work as a cashier. I’m not going to moan about it, but this work does not define me.”
I’ve never asked her what country she’s from, never asked her whether or not she’s related to the store’s owners, never asked her what she used to do in her native country, what terrible thing happened over there to make her come here, never asked her whether or not she regrets coming to New York, never asked her where she goes at night. If I did, it would be a violation of some kind. We would lose the sublime thing we have.
She tells me the price of my items quickly, in a muffled voice that draws no attention to itself. Then there is the “thank you” and, sometimes, “you’re welcome.” About once a month, one of us, feeling a little jaunty, may throw in a “hello” or “hey.” But this is the only thing we allow between us to acknowledge our long association. Chitchat would be out of the question.
There’s nothing worse, nothing uglier and more mundane, than the hair-trigger rudeness of families or longtime lovers. There’s none of that between the cashier and me. Our relationship is based on professional respect and dispassion. Through years of coffee in the morning and salami sandwiches in the afternoon, she has never once smirked at me. I’m trying to use my relationship with her–our politeness with each other, the seriousness with which each of us makes allowances for the other one’s separateness–as a model for the closer relationships in my life.
The cashier with tea hair and I have been together for five years now. We’re the closest of strangers.
Mrs. Gloria Harrison, of DeKalb Avenue, called the police Thursday night to report a rustling in the bushes below her front window. Four officers responded, one of whom, Kevin Mahoney, is the proud father of a new baby boy, Kevin Jr. (eight pounds, two ounces). His wife, Doris, is resting comfortably at their home on Third Avenue. The officers shot the suspected intruder 13 times.
Joe Forsythe, of Astoria, was returning home from dinner with his wife and son Gary Tuesday night when they noticed a man driving erratically. Gary is still in the Army (a sergeant now) and is visiting for two weeks before heading back to Germany. Joe managed to flag down a passing patrol car, and the two officers caught up to the driver in question and shot him nine times.
Samuel Fields, the night janitor at Kennedy High School, spotted two young men playing Frisbee after hours on the football field of the Fighting Tigers, who open their season Friday night against defending regional champs, the Yonkers Patriots (go Tigers!). Samuel mentioned it to four officers who happened to be next door at White Castle. After they finished eating they came by and shot the two rowdies 28 times.
Mrs. Theresa Lopez, of Jerome Avenue, had just hung out the laundry after returning home Wednesday from her trip to Mexico with her sister, Louisa, who is in her last year of nursing school. Theresa noticed that several items were missing from the line and called the local precinct house. Two officers stopped by later to look at her photos of the trip, which went well, said Theresa, “but it was hot,” and to shoot 34 times three neighbors who might have stolen the laundry.
Hank Bernstein, of Manhattan, was working on his plot in the community garden on Saturday when he noticed a cat had stranded itself on a nearby fire escape. He called the police and continued to work on his garden, which, readers may recall, won third place in last year’s oddities category for a potato that looked like Pope John Paul II. Luckily, officers were able to get there in time, and shot the frightened cat 42 times.
Mr. and Mrs. Norman Kahn, who recently moved into their newly renovated house in the Richmond area of Staten Island (“Finally!” said Mrs. Kahn), were hosting a house warming party on Sunday, which, said Mr. Kahn, “went very well, all things considered.” At around 10:30 p.m. a nearby neighbor complained to the police about the noise. Several officers responded 15 minutes later and fired 114 shots into the crowd.
Tommy Wagley, the 9-year-old son of Randy and Sara Wagley, of Brooklyn Heights, was riding his bike Wednesday after school when he got lost. Tommy recently got honorable mention for perfect attendance and, according to his parents, “likes math.” At the corner of Court Street and Fourth Avenue, Tommy saw an officer and asked him for directions. The officer shot Tommy 17 times, after which Tommy was taken to Kings County Hospital, where he was shot an additional 45 times by the same officer.