There is an associate in the plumbing department who is young, like 21, and committed to the Catholic Church’s teachings. He does not work on Friday nights, as he goes to church with his family, whom he still lives with. He is a fairly unproductive worker, given to standing around with others his age. I have been around their conversations, and they mostly concern female associates, female friends, female customers—“Holy shit, look at that one”—and drinking alcohol at fairly predictable rates.
They also occasionally talk about their cellphones. I do see them infrequently talk into their cellphones, but in large part the discussions involve the features of their cellphones, the plans involved with their cellphones, and what they like about them.
Likewise, one of my common customer interactions concerns making a beer bong for local university students who are around the same age as my fellow male associates. These students, usually in packs of three, four, or five, always believe they are the first people to come up with the idea of connecting a funnel to tubing. They will begin to eye the tubing and invariably this makes them laugh. When I approach them to ask if they need any help, they begin to get secretive and laugh in muffled ways to one another. One of them will act as the principle communicator, and he will usually be weirdly serious, as if to camouflage their intentions. Normally, I play along, cut the tubing, and ask them if they need anything else. But increasingly I have begun to ask them questions about their project while playing dumb the entire time. They will almost always tell me they need it for a class project.
“Now, how much pressure will the contents be under?” I’ll ask with a straight face, filled with earnestness.
“Oh, not much.”
“Well, I’m asking because, you know, you might need some hose clamps to keep the contents inside. I’m not sure if it’s a hazardous chemical, but I would definitely worry about leakage. In which case I would recommend a ball valve.”
“Yeah,” they’ll add, “that’s a good idea.”
Then, they’ll ask where the funnels are. At this point, I’ll put forward a confused facial expression, and say something like it must be an interesting experiment and class. I say this with no sense of irony whatsoever. They will halfway turn to one another, laugh mildly, and then the principle communicator will tell me, again with a serious face, what the false project is about.
I will then tell them the funnels are four aisles over.
The young plumbing associate who goes to church on Fridays and lives with his parents has a habit of getting upset about failed communication attempts with female associates at the hardware store. True to his religious convictions, however, he never swears outright. Instead, he summarizes his frustration by modifying more common expressions. He says, What the heck? and What the frick?
Unasked, he has also told me how a woman at the state fair went down on him. “Twice!”
I believed him because of the innocent reaction he displayed—and he’s also told me he’s a virgin—and because he followed it up with the alternative usage—of confused excitement—of his pet expression, by saying, “I mean, I was like, what the frick?”
Confusion is really one of the governing principles at work in the hardware store. From the customers who don’t know what they are talking about to the associates who don’t know what they are doing.
It is a process of pulling out bits of information from the customer, and then figuring out what they are describing first, in order to then help them with what they are describing. The lack of a common vocabulary between the customer and the associate for the names of the parts needed can sometimes make the conversation extend past what is necessary. But this is understandable, when the part is not so common. Typically, the customer will describe the shape of the item, or its parts, to get me closer to understanding what the item he or she wants actually is.
A customer came up to me one morning, and began to explain the parts of the item he needed. He said, “Well, it has O-rings, and a thing that goes up and down. And there’s a plate of metal on top of it.”
I looked at him with confusion. He continued.
“It also has like clear glass handles on it, and a thing that comes out from behind to come over.”
I still wasn’t understanding what he was talking about. He was getting frustrated with me, and put up his hands, as if to say, “Come on.” He then said, “Here, they’re right over here,” and he pointed to the aisle near us.
Incredulously, I asked, “Do you mean a faucet?”
He put down his hands, and a relieved expression came over his face.
After he left, I began to think that his way of describing was akin to talking about something with rubbery wheels, a bunch of liquids, things that wipe, an air filter, with lights, as an indirect way of meaning a car.
There are other confusing moments, where the message is perfectly clear, and I still can’t understand what the customer wants.
One night I was walking back to the main aisle of the plumbing department when a forty-year-old man stopped me. He asked me where the sink tops were. I pointed and told him that they were just one aisle over from where he was. I then turned, as he turned, and began again to walk toward the plumbing department. It was here that the man said, “Oh, wait, I forgot to ask you something.” I turned around and walked back to him.
“Do you sell used toilets here?” the man asked.
I was confused by what he was asking, and so I asked him to explain what he meant.
He repeated himself: “Used toilets. You know. I was wondering if you kept any used toilets, you know, like in the back, that I could buy.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, we don’t have any used toilets in the back. Just these new ones out here.”
“Oh, okay, thanks again,” he replied with a pleasant smile and turned the corner.
It is extremely rare for associates to rank their most interesting customer encounters, but it doesn’t stop me from doing that with mine. I have the used toilet man in my top ten. I do, however, hear stories from other associates from other departments that I do envy.
An associate in the gardening area told me of how he was helping a woman who wanted to buy a wheelbarrow. He opened up the box for her, and began to put the wheelbarrow together for her. He finished tightening the carriage bolts down and told her it was finished. She said that it looked like there was a scratch in the red paint on the bottom surface in the middle of the barrow. The associate bent into the barrow to look.
He told me there was a thin scratch about one half-inch in length.
He then stood up and looked at the woman. He asked her what she was planning on putting in the wheelbarrow.
She explained that she would be shoveling stones into the wheelbarrow.
The associate began to explain to her that the surface of the wheelbarrow would become scratched by the first shovel-toss of the stones.
She nodded in agreement, but then took another wheelbarrow just the same.
Perhaps the most daily sense of mutual confusion (between the customer and myself) arises when the customer asks me where something is, and I tell them we don’t carry that item.
The customer response to my answer is varied. Some people question why we don’t carry the item. Some people shrug their shoulders and move on with the other things on their list. Some people get angry.
But a not-so small amount of people tell me they just saw it either yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, and they were sure “it was right here.”
I don’t go into details about how we never carried the item in the last year and a half (the length of my time at the hardware store), as I’ve previously gotten into semi-heated arguments with customers who insisted the item was here. I try at every turn to avoid this now. I don’t say anything. I will linger in the background, waiting for the customer to ask me for help about something else.
On many occasions the customer will then tell me they are just going to look for it some more, and that they won’t, thank you, need any more help.
At this point I usually just leave, but at other times I don’t.
I realize the customer believes that the item is there, but from my perspective it is a very strange thing to watch—the customer picking up various boxes, pushing aside others, searching for an item I know is not there, and never has been.
It’s like watching a mime dig in an invisible box for an invisible object. But without the mime knowing he or she is a mime.
Yesterday, a man walked into the middle of the plumbing department’s main aisle. I was on a ladder and had my hands full of pre-cut galvanized pipes (an older transporter of water than copper).
He looked up at me, and I looked down at him. He seemed confused by something, and I kept waiting for him to say something.
He looked around and then asked me, “Yeah, hi. Ah, where’s the plumbing department?”
“Um, sir,” I said, hesitantly, “you’re right in the middle of it.”
He looked around again and said, “Oh, right. Yeah. That’s what I thought.”