I’d read about these situations before. A few weeks ago, I had the fun job of going through the managers’ log and reviewing entries from the past 8 months or so; during that time, the managers saw fit to write about things like employee absences, tardies, equipment malfunctions, and incidents involving thieves, masturbators, and other characters who attracted the attention of the authorities.
Relative to some of the tales I’ve read, my management stint has been a breeze, and last night started as no exception to the rule. We had plenty of employees working, and they were in good spirits, to boot. Sales were strong, the place was clean, and the displays were looking good for today’s purported visit from our regional manager (which never happened—that is so damned frustrating!).
In many ways, it was business as usual.
At about 9:00 p.m., one of our regular customers approached me with some sort of strategic plan worked out in his mind, which he began to outline for me, in media res, in his strong, Indian accent. “You know,” he said, “he’s not doing anything wrong, so I’m sure you can’t legally ask him to leave, but there is one route you could pursue.”
“Who?” I asked. “He who?”
“The man. He’s sitting in the chair next to mine. He isn’t bothering anybody, but he is taking cigarette butts and putting them in the magazines,” he said. “You could get him on that.”
“Well, what man? Where are you sitting?”
“Over here, in the children’s section,” he said.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts—namely the one about the customers who are not only not right, but very, very wrong—you’ll remember that any hint of trouble coming from a man in the children’s department usually means bad news a-brewin’.
The customer (K.C.) began to lead me to the area, then stopped just out of earshot of the man in question. “Oh yes, the thing is,” he added, leaning in to whisper to me: “he smells like piddle.”
The word seemed to denote a scent that would be far cuter than it could ever be offensive, but when I approached the subject of our discussions, I realized “piddle” was probably not exactly an accurate choice.
“He smells like dirty ash pit” might have been a bit closer to the truth. And it’s important, I think, to differentiate between objectionable odors. “Piddle” would have been unbearable. “Dirty ash pit” was not SO bad.
K.C. didn’t seem all that put-off, either. He remained seated next to cigarette butt man for the remainder of the night. I suppose he just wanted to warn me in case some of the other customers might be driven away; our regulars like to think of themselves as little helpers…some of them regularly report strange goings-in and even see fit to give talkings-to to pervy ne’er-do-wells.
I thanked K.C. for his tip and approached the man, who was clearly transient. I’m not one to kick people out simply because they’re dirty, or even because they smell (aside from the fact that there aren’t really legal grounds for this, my inner hippy says, “Well, as long as they’re not hurting or truly disturbing anybody—you know, to each his own.”)
“Excuse me, sir,” I began. “Have you purchased that magazine?”
He didn’t respond verbally. He just made a no-ish kind of noise.
“Ok, well then would you mind not putting your cigarette butts all over the cover?…you’re going to ruin it.”
Now, people ruin our magazines all the time; that wasn’t really my concern. The gross thing is that we’re talking a heaping pile of hodgepodge butts collected (I imagine) from ashtrays and trashcans and parking lots the city over. They were all different lengths and brands and—like any cigarette butts do—they just STUNK.
He gave half a nod, scooped them up, and put them back in the old Camel Lights box sitting next to him on the armchair.
“Thank you,” I said, and walked away.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later, when we were fixing to close, that smokey man and I were reacquainted. It seemed he had passed out on the chair and completely missed both our closing announcements.
K.C. the Regular, stood by and watched while I said, then said louder, then yelled, “Excuse me sir? Sir? SIR?”
He opened his eyes.
“You’re going to have to leave now. We’re closed.”
The man managed a little nod, then dozed off.
“No,” I said. “I mean now. We’re closed now.”
He nodded again, this time with eyes closed, then let his head fall to the cushion.
Hmm. What to do?
I summoned Darrell, our big, Clark Kenty head cashier/bouncer (you think we don’t need one, think again).
Darrell yelled using his outside voice, and this time, the man didn’t bat an eyelash. Darrell (a former cop) said, “call the police.”
I really hated to do that. But I wasn’t about to sling the man over my shoulder and carry him out, either. The dispatcher asked if the man needed medical attention, and I said I didn’t know.
“If you don’t know,” he responded, “then it’s my job to send it. I’m dispatching it now.”
‘Okay then,’ I thought, and man-sat while the booksellers straightened the store all around us.
The medical attention arrived 15 minutes later, making me happy for the fact that it hadn’t been a true emergency. I heard the sirens and waited for the ambulance to pull around to the entrance.
But no, this was no ambulance. No. This was…drumroll please….
The Fire truck!
I was too tired to be as excited as I might have been otherwise, but I will say that had I known it would be (not one, but two) fire trucks (each loaded to capacity with hulking heroes) sent in the event that the man needed medical attention, I would have exaggerated his condition, which truly just seemed to me like ¡Xtreme Sleepiness! (say it in monster truck rally voice).
The ambulance was there, too, and behind it, two police cars. It was overkill, to say the least, but it’s nice to have some excitement around.
The man perked up enough to identify himself as Bill, a 50-year-old diabetic.
Then he really perked up when they stuck him on the gurney. He threw his hands behind his head in super relaxation mode, and even smiled as they wheeled him out the doors.
Another night, another emergency call at Barnes & Noble.
I joke it about somewhat now, but it was a bit heart wrenching to watch this man—who was obviously having a tough time with things—be so needy and so unkempt and so unable to care for himself.
I thought about it a lot after work last night, and I was thankful for the systems we have in place in this country to help people. I mean, this complete stranger was left in our hands. Ok, clearly I can’t do much for him myself, not being a nurse or anything. But I can call other complete strangers, and they will come take care of him. I don’t have to know them; they don’t have to know him; nevertheless, the man gets the attention he needs.
Lest I take flak from any of my Republican friends a-lurking, I will say this much:
Yes, I know these services cost taxpayers money.
Yes, I know there are plenty of people who take advantage of the services of the state and become discouraged from pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.
No, I wasn’t all that surprised to see the same man, less than 24 hours later, hospital bracelet and all, plop himself into the very same armchair (!) as I was leaving work this afternoon.
At that point, I had to laugh a little.
We all do what it takes to get by.
Like the smoker who flicks his butts into the parking lot and says, “There are people who are paid to clean this…I’m giving them job security,” I say this: let the man sleep a while. Fires are rare, and how many times can you wash the fire truck to keep busy? It’s good for us to see our neighborhood civil servants out and about and do-gooding every now and then.