The Customer is...
#86this: Main Menu
By Lauren Elyse Garcia
The only person who can be “right” is the customer, for the customer is always right.
This theory is so ingrained in customer service that we forget it goes completely against critical thought and human nature. We aren’t supposed to always say yes. Hell, we aren’t properly equipped to give in to many of our own whims, much less someone else’s. “JUST SAY NO!” First Lady Nancy Reagan would tell the American people, for despite being the G.O.P.’s queen supreme, even she knew that saying “yes” all the time could hypothetically lead you to exchange your first-born son for crack. Don’t succumb to peer pressure, kids. Just say no.
But in 2016, I did succumb to peer pressure. I joined the ranks of food retail. I was a grocery store cheesemonger and bartender (yes, they had a bar), and holy shit, did I say “yes” a lot.
To be clear: I loved my job. I was good at my job. I had a knack for relating to the customers and mapping out cheese plates for Thanksgiving and rebelling against safety laws by climbing the upright cooler to grab chevre logs. I adored my coworkers, and my coworkers adored me back. But some of the customers—
They didn’t technically see things as I saw them. Or feel things as I felt them. Or realize I was anything more than an object that resembled a human, an object that made $12 an hour and served them cheese and served them beer and served them a grocery store-themed fantasy where they were the master and I was the thing.
I was being paid to serve them. I was being paid to be a consenting adult.
Rest assured, on most days, this was the exception, not the rule. I spent much of my time saying inane facts about cheese, and customers would be like, “OMG you know so much about cheese!” And I’d be like, “Not really, but JK, IF YOU INSIST!!!” And we’d laugh and give each other freeze-frame high-fives and believe in the power of capitalism. But for others, the counter that separated us could have very well been the bloody wardrobe to Narnia, a divide of two varying worlds, of two governing parties.
The offenses themselves could range anywhere from a minor infraction to blatantly gross: Men, usually older, “complimenting” me on my “great” figure. (“And you eat cheese too! Wow!”) Men remarking constantly—sometimes two or more times weekly—about my race, using it as a gateway to yet another comment on my body.
“What are you?” one would say.
“I’m sorry… ?”
“Are you Mediterranean? Greek?”
“Um, Mexican… ?”
“Oh! No wonder you have such beautiful [insert body part, but more often than not, it was (strangely) eyebrows]!”
“Thank youuuu… ?”
A man moaning at me as I pulled something down from a high shelf. A man asking me to wash his cucumber. A man insisting that I go on an all-meat-and-cheese diet as he intermittently rubbed my shoulders for 10 minutes. A man—more specifically, a deodorant salesman visiting from out-of-state and trying to sell his goods at the grocery store—asking me out after my bar shift so we could “have a little fun.” Even though he had a wife. And a two-year-old. Which is something he told me at the bar. Because he was drunk. While trying to sell deodorant.
I then proceeded to buy the deodorant out of a sense of masochistic shame.
Men. Men. A man. A man. A man. A man.
This was just a portion of my sterling grocery store harassment résumé, a résumé that I kept secret from Human Resources, because, as I then reasoned, what good would it do to bring up these isolated incidents? What could they do? Ban these men? Ban all men? Burn the grocery store down? Burn all grocery stores down? Force us to live off the land and go back to a bartering system? A dozen eggs in exchange for the cucumber I washed for that one dude?
Thanks, Human Resources!!!
And anyways, the faults felt small—miniscule, in fact—in comparison to the sins of other men, to the wrongs forced upon a number of my friends. Because frankly, at this point in my 20s, it was becoming increasingly difficult to meet a woman who hadn’t been sexually assaulted, much less raped. So I minimized the problems. Told a few friends and then kept mum. Forgot some of the incidents, even. Because it wasn’t anything that wouldn’t happen outside the automatic doors of our grocery store. The only difference was that, in the store, I was a paid server to these men, and out in the real world, I was just a woman expected to serve.
There was one time where I felt genuinely fearful of a customer. But in retrospect, it was nothing, really. Almost routine.
The man had come into the grocery store bar a couple of times, always during lunch, always ordered wine. Forty-something. Arrogant. Probably really “got” Jonathan Franzen. He was the type of guy who lived in an apartment space that he had paid for in full and had since gutted the kitchen, because why not? He didn’t cook, and he didn’t need to. He had a disposable income that allowed him to purchase every meal and drink wine at lunch and then use this occasion as a crutch to hit on whatever girl was being paid to be nice to him.
And one day, I was that girl.
“Maybe,” he smirked, “the next glass of wine I buy will be with you. What’s your number?”
And although it wasn’t the first time I had been asked out at work by a customer, for whatever reason, I still hadn’t come up with a nifty canned answer for a question like this—an answer that was a “NO” but sounded like a Pygmalion-style “Aye guv’na, if only yew was not ov means, and I but a po’ whiskey slinga’!” You know, a mild enough response where I was in compliance with customer service codes, but also in the clear to still get tipped. So instead, I said this:
“Oh, I’m so sorry. But I’m working right now, sooo… I can’t give you my number.”
Ehhh. It was weak, but boy howdy, did it sure seem like I respected my job! I wasn’t getting paid to get handsy on the clock, mister!
The thing that inevitably killed me was not that he asked me out at work, though that irked me quite a bit. It was the look on his face as I denied his request. It wasn’t embarrassment. It wasn’t shame. Rather, it was a look that I had seen before, years earlier, from an ex-boyfriend passing through town.
The visit with this ex hadn’t been going well—not in my estimation, at least—and out of sheer animal instinct, I tried to be as platonic as humanly possible so as not to confuse the poor boy as to what we were really doing: just hanging out. I wore baggy clothes. I split the cost of dinner. I nayed every spontaneous suggestion of his. Dance with you in my living room? Not this puritan princess! And at precisely 9 p.m.—a time which I figured was not too early but still convincingly late enough to pretend that it was “so late” and that I was “so tired”—I said, “WELL, IT’S SO LATE, AND I’M SO TIRED. I GUESS YOU BETTER HEAD OUT NOW.”
His first take was that of confusion, as if he couldn’t comprehend that it could possibly be late or that I could possibly be tired at 9 p.m., which fair enough.
“But,” he stammered, “I thought I was gonna stay over tonight.”
I thought I was gonna stay over tonight?
Terrified by the implication, my sheer animal instinct was panicking, trying to run onto whatever lifeboat the women and children were on in order to get the hell off of this shitty, sinking ship. “GIVE HIM AN OUT! GIVE HIM AN OUT!” instinct screamed at me. “Let him leave with his pride and without you having to shame him with a ‘no’. DO IT, WOMAN!”
“Um, I didn’t know. I didn’t wash the sheets to the extra bed or anything, and the last person to sleep on them was sick, so… ”
“No,” he said, so freely and without abandon, “I thought I was going to sleep with you.”
My sheer animal instinct was now on the lifeboat, vomiting into the ocean, as it watched the shit ship sink from afar.
“I’m sorry, but no.” The words came out not-so-freely and not-without-abandon. They came out feebly, mangled. Weak.
And then there it was, the look: It wasn’t shame. It wasn’t embarrassment.
It was destruction. He could—and wanted to—destroy me. And I? I was waiting for him to destroy me. I would always be waiting for destruction. Always.
His words told me I was “naïve,” that I “led him on.” “And what about those text messages???” But his look—his look said, “You bitch.”
“You stupid bitch.”
Fast forward to the grocery store, to the wine I refused to have with this relative stranger who bought every meal with his disposable income, and his look—his look said it all:
“You bitch. You stupid bitch.”
The customer is always right.
I hadn’t known that this feeling could come from anyone other than someone who knew me well, someone who was acquainted with where my vulnerabilities hid, but there I was, waiting for destruction. And I would always be waiting for destruction. Always susceptible. Always. But this time, I was safe, for truthfully, I now felt protected by my food retail job, protected by my sobriety, and by the Narnia-esque counter, because without it—could I have been destroyed? Would my narrative have been different in another setting, in another similar, if not more prevalent, male-female power dynamic?
Instead, in compliance with customer service codes, the guy just didn’t tip me.
During my last weeks of employment at the store, a business superior asked me out. I wasn’t sure if he worked for corporate or was a freelance hire to the company, but he wasn’t present all the time, and thus I only sort of knew him. Prior to then, we had a few low-key conversations—he said polite things, and I, thinking he was a customer, also said polite things—but that was pretty much it.
Granted, the request itself wasn’t offensive; he wasn’t aggressive or pushy or suggestive. He just seemed like a nice enough guy who was probably lonely and didn’t know that he could hit on girls outside the workplace. Even so, it was still strange being asked out in the “Employee’s Only” area as I washed dirty knives. So strange, that I quickly bullshitted some answer to him and basically ran out and told the first coworker I saw with the clear caveat to “PLEASE KEEP THIS FROM OUR BOSSES.”
But alas, he didn’t, and I was Judas’d. And no more than five minutes later, there were my bosses.
My bosses, mind you, were the type of men who intentionally hired more females as a way to combat a machismo culture. In fact, a few months earlier, when a coffee distributor of ours was accused of domestic violence, my bosses ended ties with the company that very day. “We’re a team of strong women,” a coworker told me upon relaying the news. “We don’t put up with that shit.”
But when my bosses came over to confront me about the back-room situation, it was, naturally, 10 out of 10, the most awkward thing ever—for them as much as it was for me. One of them just apologetically mumbled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Let’s just keep working,” which felt weirdly appropriate given that it was my favorite meditative mantra. But my second boss, he said something that fascinated me. Still fascinates me, even.
As I was behind the counter, he came up next to me and quietly said, “Hey. We don’t have to talk about this, okay?” Meaning he wouldn’t push if I wasn’t ready.
It was precisely what I thought I wanted to hear, what I thought I needed to hear, but when his well-intentioned words came out, I was—disappointed. Not at him, per se, but at the situation. Apparently, I did want to talk about it, having told my co-worker.
These small, “isolated incidents”? They were the makeup of my life. I’d grown accustomed to them, never considered them less than normal. And this was my truth, right? So it was okay.
To the man who followed me in his car for 20 minutes when I was jogging as a teenager. To the acquaintance at my Catholic college who, while I was reading, pinned me down on my back and started dry humping me, my book still in hand. To the former coworker who I once threatened to quit my job over because he made me uncomfortable. “But don’t fire him, please,” I requested, because I didn’t want to be responsible for a grown adult losing his part-time, $10-an-hour job.
There was no counter then either.
And for the longest time, I had attributed the harassment from customers to the assumption that they thought themselves better than me, more educated than me, wealthier than me with their benefit packages and healthy 401(k)s and stable careers. And maybe, for some of them, that was the case.
But that’s not the whole truth, right?
When you’re in the food industry, the food itself is personal, so any backlash, any disrespect toward it or you, by association, also feels personal as well. Food is holy territory, thus prime for tarnishing. However, outside of work, without the mask of food, it was purely me and only me. And that was personal too. I was personal.
And I was vulnerable, prime for tarnishing.
The customer-employee power dynamic was a reality, but so were the male-female irregularities that had been cemented over for generations. And as a woman, there was no escaping either world. The crimes just took on another appearance as they adapted to new environments. But nevertheless, they were still crimes. They were still there.
And I want to talk about it. I really, really want to talk about it. Because, for once, I want to be right.
Lauren Elyse Garcia is a writer living in New Orleans by way of the Rio Grande Valley and Chicago. Her favorite literary food moment is when Scout Finch dressed like a ham in To Kill a Mockingbird.