As I started to walk past her she motioned with her head toward the floor. Her eyes locked on all the change. She knew I would stop and pick it up.
It was quite a bit—a dime and several pennies.
“How many is that now?” she asked.
“A little over 23,000.”
“You’re kidding me?”
Then it started. A rant from Stephanie I’d never heard before. In the few years she’s worked at our neighborhood store I’ve gotten to know her enough to be on familiar terms. I know what many of her likes and dislikes are, when she works, where she goes to school—that sort of thing. Still, I didn’t see this coming.
“It makes me sick,” she said. “I stand here day after day and see this.”
“What?” I asked cautiously.
“People and their money—and how ridiculous they are with it. They spend it on the stupidest stuff. Then they forget their change or drop it because they’re in such a rush to get someplace. Where they’re going is probably stupid too. It makes me crazy. The world is getting worse.”
I hadn’t anticipated her monologue so I wasn’t sure how to respond. All I could think to say was, “I know.”
She went on adding, “You’re awesome though because you care. You won’t just leave it for people to ignore.”
“I’m hardly awesome,” I said. “It just represents something for me.”
“What?” she asked.
“Change.” I said laughing.
“You don’t keep it though,” she said.
“No. It’s not about the money. It’s about stopping long enough to think about what I’m thinking about. I somehow want to believe that will make me a more thoughtful person. Someone who’s tuned in enough to notice what needs to change in her own life.”
“That’s so cool,” she said.
“Not really,” I said. “But, I’m glad you like knowing why I pick them up.”
“Well not many people do,” she said. “That’s why the world is a mess.”
I couldn’t respond to her last statement. She was manning the four self-check registers and someone needed help. I didn’t like leaving her hanging but to stay would have been weird. The conversation had run its course.
I left the store troubled. It made me sad that she felt so cynical about the world. I could understand it if she worked in a bar like I did at her age. That’s an eye opening experience everyone should have. It’s like reality on steroids with an alcohol accelerator.
It’s not the bright side of life but it teaches you something. I learned more by waitressing than college taught me. That’s not what I picture for Stephanie at the supermarket but maybe that’s where I’m naïve. Perhaps she sees an equally troubled world from behind the check-out counter.
I do understand the cynicism. I battle it myself. Some days when I find more change than I think anyone should, I feel frustrated like she does. Other days I simply feel thankful for the learning it brings. On those days I wonder if other people’s distraction is my gain. If they don’t drop the change I might miss something I’m supposed to tune into—a thought, word, or deed left undone. In this strange way we’re dance partners just like faith and doubt are. You can’t have one without the other.
In the week that followed our conversation, I wondered what I would say to Stephanie the next time I saw her. Should I even bring it up? I decided I’d know when the time came. Today was that day.
Stephanie checked me out and when she handed me my receipt I said, “How are you today?”
“People are being nice today,” she said.
“That helps doesn’t it?” I asked.
Then I went for it.
“You know there are a lot of nice people out there Stephanie.”
“I guess,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the not so nice are the ones we remember—careless people who do careless things. But that isn’t all there is to this world. There are a lot of people who are trying. Maybe you don’t see that here but it’s out there. You just have to look for it.”
“Like the pennies?” she asked.
“Yes. But, I don’t find them because I’m looking for them. I find them because I know what they look like. There’s a difference.”
“So, I need to remember what good looks like?” she asked.
“I think that would help.” I said.
She smiled. I smiled, and our conversation was done. It was easy like I hoped it would be.
I left the store encouraged for both of us. We teach best what we need to learn the most and I needed to hear my own words. Cynicism bites at my heels as much as hers. The world is broken but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. There’s good to be found if you can remember what it looks like—and that good multiplied is the recipe for change.