Me, Mom & Thomas (the Check-out Boy)

I was on the phone with my mom as I went to check out my groceries at Publix tonight to pick up mac’n’cheese (mad craving!) and bananas, apples, and yogurt (for my favorite morning smoothies).

Got to the counter, still on the phone. But I always feel kinda skeezy for being on the phone and ignoring the checkout person, So I said to the friendly-looking young man,”I’m sorry for being on the phone right now.”

He said, “It’s OK, at least you are apologizing… at least you’re ACKNOWLEDGING me.” He did not say this in a snarky way–just delightfully honest and honestly grateful.

Liking this, I took it a step further. “I’m on the phone with my mom actually.”

“Ah–well tell your mom I said hi.” “OK! Mom, (speaking into phone – and reading his nametag) Thomas says hi.”

Mom: “Oh that’s nice. Who’s Thomas?”

“The young fellow at Publix who’s checking me out–err, who’s doing the checkout for my groceries” (I blushed and did a little embarrassed monkey dance).

Mom: “Well you tell Thomas I hope he has a WONDERFUL night”–she said “wonderful” with great emphasis.

This experience made me incredibly happy. What a nice little crossing over of interactions, and coming out feeling the opposite of skeezy!

And, beyond “not feeling skeezy,” it made me happy for other reasons that go deep into my feelings on modern technology, social media, and a waning appreciation for interactions with people in the world around us that are not planned or pre-sorted.

Thomas’ remark about me “at least acknowledging him” made me think of how many times that must have happened WITHOUT the intentional nod or word from a customer, and what effect it had on him. How those little marks of noticing and acknowledging color others’ experiences of and with us whether we are paying attention to it or not (often, I think, not).

Jane Jacobs, civic innovator, hanging out at a Tavern










It makes me think of how much the increase in “social” technology seems to distract us these days from the social world of our face-to-face daily interactions…  and how thinking of that always makes me sadly pine for romantic images of folks hanging out on street blocks, park benches, in barber shops, enjoying each others company with all of the sights and sounds, smells and unplanned interactions that happen in those sorts of places. Or, at the grocery store check-out line…  how many of us in industrialized countries are super comfortable navigating the social spaces set up on social media sites or through or cell phones but seem to be increasingly uncomfortable with or simply less-inclined to interactions outside of those spaces.

So what’s my reaction?  Anger? Dismay? Protest?

Tonight’s little check-out-line conversation between me, Thomas and my mom reminded me how much I have the power throughout my day to reverse the current trend I see around me, AND how fun it can be.  I believe that spontaneous interactions and being able to enjoy face-to-face exchanges with other people is a great ingredient to life and something I want us humans to hold onto as a species.

Some of my best friends and heroes are those I have met because I was open to talking to them as we shared a public space as strangers. For instance, I met my friend Marcos because I lost my wallet once in Chicago in the Cafe where he worked. Because I lingered a moment longer after he handed me my wallet and had a friendly conversation, I ended up at an underground artist collective that night where I witnessed things and made friendships that inspired an entire era of my life.

Those people and I weren’t “friend suggested” by Facebook’s social mega-mind, and we didn’t find each other because we listed the same interests on twitter. Something bigger was at work–call it chance, karma, or the ludicrous beauty of life and us being open to it.

So am I saying that cell phones or facebook are evil, or that we should talk to every check-out person we encounter?  Not exactly.

Overall, the Thomas-mom interaction makes me think of how, rather than seeing the trend away from openness to who or what’s before us as a downward spiral of doom [as some I know are wont to do, including me at times], moments like tonight can be opportunities to revive our latent inner urges toward public humanity. We can allow that urge to jump in and creatively reconstruct connection in surprising and fun ways that leave us all strangely satisfied and amused. And I’m thinking that these exchanges have the potential to feel that much more warm and human because we had to make an effort to re-humanize them.  NYCity kids enjoying streetlife. Photo by Arthur Fellig, 1937











In other words, perhaps those of us who lament the decline of spontaneous or otherwise face-to-face exchanges due to technology could approach this trend with enthusiasm, as an exciting new hurdle in the obstacle course of creating good communities around us, whose presence will make headway that much more satisfying.  It can be an opportunity to make this a society that values face-to-face human exchange that much more, because its people have innovated beyond the pressure to pull away.

me (at 16) & mom. photo by our neighbor Gordon.. and don't get me started on the value of connecting with neighbors!!!

In closing, it strikes my mind as poetic that my mother was the one who trained me early-on to savor spontaneous exchanges, especially at… the supermarket! Yes, she’s the type that will know the check-out person’s life story AND deepest personal struggle (or dream) by the time they hand her the receipt. So appropriate that she should have been there with me and Thomas tonight, a warm voice through my cell phone wishing him a wonderful night.

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2 Responses to Me, Mom & Thomas (the Check-out Boy)

  1. This article literally danced off the page. Your story at the check-out counter is one I can relate to I’ve often made the same apologies telling them that I too was talking with my mom or my sister — both of whom live afar. What touched, moved and inspired me April is how you captured the essence of these chance encounters that get created when one human being sees the other and smiles. I love your story, the photo and everything. Looking forward to many more similar stories — the stories of real people that don’t garner headlines but shine so much brighter because they touch our heart!

    • April says:

      Ohhh… thank you so much Suzanne!!! I’m glad I’m not the only one who ends up doing it–with good reason–but also realizing what I’m doing. Those little acknowledgements go so tremendously far, right?? Thank you for always inspiring me to be bright with others and super real. You are an expert. And thank you for your encouragement, it means a lot and helps to fuel me forward–I will keep the stories coming!

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