It happened sometime in the spring. I realized it one day when I brought my stuff to the counter and the cashier was just, like, hanging out with his coworkers up front, smiling, talking about stuff. Smiles used to be hard to come by at the Rite Aid at the corner of Broadway and John.
As someone who lives very close, I can tell you it used to be—before the spring—staffed by people who looked liked they’d been found in a medieval forest. They were barely human. They were not experts at English, and when they spoke the entire purpose of what they said was intended to prevent further communication. I once asked one of these goblins if there was any way I could request that they begin carrying carbonated water—seltzer, club soda, Perrier, something like that. She snapped, “No.” There’s no way I can request something? Well, she said, rolling her eyes, “You can call 1-800-RITE-AID.”
So anyway, it’s months later, and I’m at the front registers, and the guy is laughing with his coworkers. This guy is new—a good hire, good smile, a real person. And this smiling business, all this mirth—this is new. Never before in history had anyone ever looked like they were doing anything at this Rite Aid except artlessly forestalling mortal doom. Whereas this new guy was having a good time at his job. And the two women he was talking with were having a good time at work too.
“Shouldn’t you guys be working?” I said, because it was so great seeing them enjoying their existence.
“I’m building employee morale,” one of the women, a supervisor, said, grinning.
These three are not the only ones. An entire shipment of people has entered into employment at the Rite Aid at Broadway and John in the last six months, good people, sprinkling their good-people dust everywhere, and even some of the medieval-forest people are themselves undergoing transformations, so that now some of them actually seem, when they are looking at you, not to be staring through your eyes. They are animated, real, befriendable.
Last night, I stopped into Rite Aid—I actually look for excuses to go in now—and bought a little something, and when I got to the cashier it was the same guy in the above paragraphs. We’ve developed a little rapport. He’s a student somewhere. He was fixing with the receipt machine with one hand (the receipt paper was jammed) and holding a stuffed monkey with the other (it had been sitting on top of the receipt thing).
“Technical malfunction?” I said.
“Technical malfunction and Fred needed a hug,” he said, referring to the monkey he was squeezing with his right hand.
“How’s my favorite drugstore these days?” I said, having just decided I was going to go home and alert the Slog citizenry of the recent sea change at my local drugstore.
“It’s well,” he said, awkwardly, and then, charmingly, realized that that sounded kind of awkward and started riffing. “It’s been very well-kept. Well cleaned…”
He laughed at himself and, in the process of giving me my receipt, failed to give me the $20 I had just taken out with my debit card, and shut his register drawer. It took me a couple steps to realize I didn’t have the twenty I’d taken out, and by this time he was in the middle of ringing up the next person. I turned on my heels and explained.
“Are you sure? Are you sure it’s not in one of your pockets?” he said.
I checked all my pockets. I didn’t have it. He looked at me. I looked at him. I waited for him to decide how he was going to handle this. Cue the tension music. If this had happened six months ago, if he were one of the old employees of the Rite Aid, he would have not believed me, and if I had a problem he would have told me to come back at the end of his shift when he was counting his till, or to take it up with 1-800-RITE-AID, or whatever.
Meanwhile, he was in the middle of this other transaction, and he said to this customer, with a wry glance in my direction, “Did you want cash back?” And then to me, he said—and in doing this he became the mascot for the flowering of humanity and neighborhood values in a setting that had never seen either—“Oh, I must have just handed you your receipt. Sorry about that. Here you go, here’s your twenty.”