How are you doing today, ma'am? Are you finding everything ok, sir? Are you looking for a particular size? I can take the next customer on register three. Well, my name is Josh, so if you need anything else, don't hesitate to ask.
I must utter these phrases at least 100 times every week. Of course, there's always the occasional "Ma'am, your child is sexually assaulting one of our mannequins. I may have to call the police."
Twelve years in the clothing retail industry, er, I mean the "customer service" industry (see what I did there?) can leave one with a rather thick skin. If you can't handle being cursed out for something that was clearly not your fault, this is not the job market for you. When a customer burns the place down, I'm supposed to apologize for having made it so flammable. Look it up. It's in the rulebook. After all, the customer is always right.
It is with this mindset that, each and every night, I enter the doors of the place that shall remain nameless, clock in, clip my name tag into place, roll up my sleeves, take a deep breath and prepare myself for five to eight hours of fake pleasantries and boorish behavior. Not to mention folding. Lots and lots of folding.
I admit that I am beginning to tire of performing these menial tasks. There's just something demeaning about having to feign civility when answering the impudent inquiries of customers who, in most cases, are completely capable of helping themselves. These exchanges often leave me with the urge to shout, "I'm a published journalist! Don't you know who I am? This is beneath me!" But alas, bills do not pay themselves and my bi-weekly paycheck is more important than I often realize.
Last Saturday was one of those nights. Full of impatient customers and crass attitudes. There I was. Roaming menswear like an astronaut on a foreign planet, looking for the signs of life that are unfolded T-shirts, stray blue jeans and the occasional unpackaged pair of briefs.
And then I saw him. Dusty gray hair, mid to late fifties, shoulders slumped, eyes fixated on the floor. His sudden appearance startled me and, for a moment, I wondered if he was merely the physical manifestation of a mind terribly enervated by six hours of folding.
No. He was real.
Just as genuine were the three bruises on the right side of his unshaven, chiseled jawbone and a left eye so swollen it seemed to be crying out for a cool ice pack. Tears stained his wind-beaten face.
"Can I help you, sir?"
Curse my instinctive retail training. As if it wasn't obvious that he was in need of serious help.
Hijacked, robbed and brutally beaten, he was in search of one thing: a baseball cap that would keep his head warm. Indeed, temperatures in the low twenties are a rare occurrence for south Alabama. For reasons unbeknownst to me, we have never sold ball caps. In fact, we rarely carry mens headgear at all. I managed to unearth a solid black, brimmed skullcap.
I took the cap to my register for a price scan. Ninety-seven cents.
Choking on tears, he confessed he had no money. I reached for my wallet and debit card as, much to my chagrin, I had no change on me.
My assistant manager, who had discreetly become aware of the situation, approached the counter, dug into her pocket and fished out a dollar bill and a few pennies to cover the tax. She asked if he had anywhere to stay. He did not. He was making his way to Mississippi on foot. Eager to suggest and contact a nearby shelter, she hurried to the office to retrieve her cell phone.
As I watched him slowly pull the cap down over his red, blistered ears, I was suddenly distracted by a line of customers that had formed at my register. For almost two minutes, I lost sight of him.
When I finally looked up, he was gone. My manager returned, but with now useless information.
Jesus says in Matthew 25 that what we do to "the least of these" (the poor, the hungry, the needy, the sick) we do as if to Him. I may never know what became of this man. I may never know if he made it to Mississippi. All I know is that, on a night filled with ill-tempered customers, a night when my stress levels had peaked, I watched my manager's dollar help to warm the head of a "least of these."
It was a simple reminder that sometimes, in the midst of our chaotic lives and the moments when we are the most exasperated, exhausted and fed up with people, Jesus may stagger in. And He won't always be looking for your Sunday ten percent or your good works list. Sometimes He's just looking for a dollar bill and a skullcap to keep His head warm.