At the Checkout

Last year, I was waiting in line at a grocery store checkout with Tim. We had a small basket of groceries and were chatting away until I gradually noticed that a lady directly in front of us, who also had a basket of goods, was taking an unusually long time to be processed.

My attention turned to her and I realised the reason for the delay was because she didn’t have enough money to pay the total amount that was rung up. I saw her talk with the cashier who advised her that her credit card was declined.  The lady told her she’ll pay some of it by card and the rest with cash.  The cashier (who was thankfully helpful and patient) rung up her card again for a lesser amount (which worked) and waited for the lady to dig up the balance in cash.

The lady dug around and around in her bag and found a few notes and coins but it became evident that she didn’t have the total needed. By this time, more and more people had queued up. After some long minutes, she looked at the groceries and decided to forgo one of the items. She was still $5 short. She contemplated her groceries and finally decided to forgo another item, a jar of honey, I think. She was less than a dollar short. Finally, she had to give up another small item before she had enough money to finish the transaction.

The whole time, I was desperately trying to look nonchalant and distracted. I felt so sorry for her that I thought that the worst thing I could do was gawk or seem impatient. So the whole time, I obsessed over seeming like I was preoccupied with something else and not aware of her predicament. I had thought, wow she’s in a really tough and socially embarrassing situation, it would help if others (like me) didn’t seem like we were judging her.

After she left (hurriedly) with her stuff, Tim and I discussed the situation and I came to the realisation that either one of us could have just paid for her groceries. It was so obvious, and I kicked myself for not thinking it at the time. Honestly, it made me feel ashamed.  I felt like a terrible person. I could have easily forked over $6 (gladly!) and that could’ve made the lady’s problem go away, but for some reason, that course of action didn’t occur to me in the moment.  I was so preoccupied with not making her feel judged that I completely neglected to think about just helping her.

And the kicker? It was Christmas Eve. I kid you not. That made it about 10 times worse.

Even now, months later, I still cringe at the memories of that day. No matter how you look at it, I was stupidly oblivious to someone in need and went about considering the problem in entirely the wrong way. I’ve no doubt learnt my lesson, but ugh, how I wish I could go back in time and brighten that stranger’s Christmas just a little bit. :(

7 thoughts on “At the Checkout

  1. It’s strange how things like this doesn’t occur to us until after, yes? Perhaps you’ll get your chance to help someone in the future. There are stories of people doing that :) When I hear/see things about someone doing a “Pay It Forward” thing, it encourages me to try and do the same. Don’t be too harsh on yourself for not realising what you could have done back then! At least now you know and will do it for someone in the future if the chance ever happens. <3

  2. I think situations like that can be pretty difficult though because, although giving her the money she needed would’ve been a really nice thing to do, it might have embarrassed her as well. I think I’d struggle a bit with what to do if I was in that situation. Like you, I’d want to pretend I was concentrating on something else so that she didn’t feel like I was judging her, but I’d also want to help. It’s a hard one.

  3. Tim

    At the time, I kept running my fingers over a $10 in my pocket. I really wanted to do something, but with your tremendous (and very convincing) act of nonchalance I felt as if I would have to step over you to intervene (as you were standing closer to her). I kept waiting for you to at least show some sign that you’d noticed her problem, so we could wordlessly exchange knowing looks and then take the next step… That day still haunts me…

    It’s often risky to potentially embarrass someone further with monetary generosity, but we had the perfect out! It was literally Christmas Eve! At least we got to help that lady with her shopping trolley on the broken escalator yesterday…

  4. Jem

    I’ve been in that situation a few times, twice being in the position to offer help. On the one occasion it was met with gracious thanks and a thumbs up (dread-locked guy missing some change for his bus ticket) and the next, I was frozen by my own insecurity of whether it was the right thing to do or not so did nothing. I have no idea why I didn’t feel the same in the bus ticket scenario – perhaps monetary amount came into it?

    I also recall one occasion where I’d gone shopping and this particular supermarket required a £1 coin to release the trolleys. A lady had arrived as I was stacking up my shopping in the car but had clearly not got a coin for the trolley. She was juggling two young kids and looking pretty desperate so I just gave her my trolley, no questions asked. She looked like she was going to cry; scrabbling around at her purse to put together some change for me until she accepted that I didn’t need repayment. I hadn’t even flinched to do ‘the right thing’ in that situation, so again, I can’t help but wonder what makes one scenario more difficult than another?

    Meh, I’m rambling 😉

  5. That must have been really embarrassing for the lady. I am always paranoid that something like that would happen to me. I always check the balances on my cards before I go out. Normally, I don’t carry any cash on me, but the one time I did, I was fortunate because the debit machine at the restaurant stopped working and I had just enough to pay for my meal as well as my friend’s!

    If I was in your situation, I probably would have done the same thing. When I notice things like that, I often find myself feeling sorry for the person and not thinking about ways that I can help. But I’m always looking out for opportunities like that to redeem myself for times when I didn’t do anything or wasn’t able to. You never know, maybe you’ll run into the same lady again?

  6. I’ve been in situations like these a few times before, and some of them I just stood there and watched. I kept thinking to myself, “I can spare it” but I did nothing. Probably a mix of bitterness (no one helps me, why should I do anything) and miserliness (what if i need it later?). I feel really bad about it now. :( I’ve been making changes, and I’ve been helping people out a lot more. I still feel haunted by those times I passed people by, but we can only do better the next time.

  7. I don’t think you can beat yourself up over it. I find that with a lot of situations, it’s only after reflection at a later point that you realise what other courses of action you could have taken. At least now you will be able to recognise the situation, and act in the way that best suits you at the time. <3

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