I had to get cat food for my kitties today. So I walked down to the good old Dollar Tree. It’s about a mile walk, and it’s been like 90 degrees in Berkeley lately, hot and muggy, and the sky is white from all the smoke in the air from all the California wildfires. So by the time I get to the store I’m gasping for air and my shirt is soaked with sweat.
I notice there are no shopping carts available. So I take off my backpack and open it up to take out a bag to put my groceries in. A Dollar Tree employee sees this and says:
“I’m sorry sir, you can’t come into the store with a backpack. It’s store policy.”
Now I’ve come into the Dollar Tree a thousand times before with my backpack and nobody ever said anything about it. But I guess I aroused suspicion by opening it up. I explained to her that I wasn’t trying to shoplift, I was just taking out a bag to use. But my pleas fell on deaf ears.
“You have to leave it there,” she said pointing to a spot on the floor in the front of the store.
“But I don’t want to leave my backpack lying there on the floor,” I said. “Nobody will be watching it.” Like most street people, I live out of my backpack and have all my valuables in it. And I surely don’t want to leave it there on the floor unattended, with all the people traipsing in and out of the store.
“That’s OK,” she assured me. “We have surveillance cameras.”
Wonderful. So if somebody grabs my backpack and walks off with it, they’ll at least have a grainy surveillance shot of the guy stealing my backpack. Which I’ll surely never see again. I try to plead my case, but she says:
“I’m sorry, sir, no backpacks allowed in the store.”
“Could I at least leave it in the office?”
“Would you like to talk to the manager.”
“No. I just want to keep my backpack with me.”
“If you don’t like it you can go back out the front door,” she said, firmly.
I briefly considered doing that. But the idea of going back to my campsite with no cat food for my kitties was too tragic of an option to bare. “Oh OK,” I said, and dumped my backpack on the floor.
So now I’m rushing through the store trying to grab all of my groceries as fast as I can, nervously trying to keep an eye on the front of the store in case someone tries to grab my backpack. Then I take my place at the back of the line, which stretches all the way down the aisle. By this time sweat is trickling down my back as I nervously pace back and forth.
Now the lines at the Dollar Tree are a little confusing these days because of the social-distancing. Everyone stands 6 feet away from each other, so the lines stretch all over the place. And there are three separate cashiers, with three separate lines, that all converge at one spot at the front of the counter. So it can get confusing as to who’s waiting on which line. So anyways I finally get to the front of the line and start putting my items down on the counter.
The cashier says something to me, in a disapproving tone. But, as usual, I can’t make out what she’s saying because her voice is muffled by the mask she’s wearing.
“WHAT?” I said.
She repeats what she said. But I still can’t make out what she’s saying.
“I can’t hear you,” I said.
“That’s because you’re wearing headphones,” she said.
I realize I got ear plugs on, listening to loud rock music on the radio.
“Oh,” I said. Taking off the ear plugs, feeling like a fool.
“You can’t cut to the front of the line,” she said. “You have to wait on line like everyone else.”
“I DID wait on line!” I protested.
“No you didn’t. All those people are ahead of you,” she said, pointing to the line of people behind me.
“No they weren’t. I was ahead of them,” I said.
“No you weren’t. You have to be courteous to the other customers.”
I immediately realized what the game was. She was pissed that I had tried to defy their authority earlier, so now she was getting back at me by fucking with me. I considered hitting her with a patented Ace Backwords comeback zinger. But I knew that if I uttered even one word in defiance of her almighty authority she would refuse to ring me up. And the whole trip would have been for nothing. So I decided (for once) to keep my damn mouth shut. And trudged wearily back to the end of the line. Which now stretched all the way down the aisle to the very back of the store. I stood there going through the whole panic over my backpack all over again.
When I finally got out out of the store, I stomped up the street, royally pissed at the whole unfairness of it all.
As I walked up Dwight Way I passed a long table with boxes and bags on it, and a guy standing behind the table. I suspected it was one of the charity food programs for the downtrodden, so I asked the guy:
“Are those free?”
“Yes they are,” he said. “Would you like two?”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
So now, just like that, I had two complete dinners — meatloaf, corn, mashed potatoes. And two bag lunches — ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges, bags of potato chips. Just because I happened to be walking at the right place at the right time.
And I thought: life is often like that. We get punished for no reason. And we get rewarded for no reason. . . Though I suspect there actually is a reason in there somewhere. Though we’re usually not privy to that reason.