A long one...
One of my colleagues, after reading my missives on the art of clerking, presented me with the idea that, while these writings occasionally amuse in a Seinfeldian way, they also, unfortunately, serve to justify, condone, and even aggrandize the petty grievances and bitterness of clerk life. Shouldn’t we, he posited, rise above these irritations. He has and is the happier for it. Who cares if someone brought him 18 DVD sleeves he had to get the DVDs for? One has to work anyway. Why resist whatever work comes your way, work that you will do whether you resent it or not.
I commended him for his wisdom. One need only look at a random example of clerking to see the superiority of his approach.
Let’s start with my approach. I am sitting peaceably at the checkout desk. Perhaps I am alphabetizing requests and peaceably wondering what kind of clerk Herman Melville was (difficult to tell as people tend to go on about his writing), or I am, in my quest to have important community information at the ready, tracking the progress of a slow moving but vicious thunderstorm that, though still about 4 hours west of us, I have already pinned my hopes of a quiet evening on, or, dare I even dream it, dare I even name the sacred name, a blackout. As I drift into a fantasy about a terrific bolt of lightning smashing through our skylight window high above the consumer information table, I am interrupted by an approaching patron. Curiously the patron is announcing in their loudest speaking voice “I am at the Library.” This seems obvious to me, and the child, squirming and being half-dragged behind this patron, is either clear on it already or not very interested. The patron is holding their tiny phone to their ear with one hand and gripping the poor kid with the other so that the items they have are pinioned awkwardly between elbow, ribs and armpit. Awkwardly also describes how the books are dropped in front of me. They spill across the desk. No words are addressed to me but rather the patron continues to proclaim biblically into their little device.
“Maybe we should have chicken tonight”
I am at a complete loss as to what to do with all these items piled before me, so I greet the child.
“Tough day?” I ask.
I do not get a response, just a wide, shocked stare. The parent/kidnapper holds out a library card to me. Ah, I know what to do with this. I put it under the laser to bring up the patron’s record. Fortunately there is something I can use there.
“It says here that your request for “Lethal Weapon 2” expired. Is it okay if I delete the note?” I ask directly into the patron’s talking.
“Hold on a minute.” The patron says to the not there person. “What?”
My first word addressed to me. I am very excited! “Four years ago you didn’t get in to pick up “Lethal Weapon 2” when it came in for you. Do you mind if I take the note regarding it off your record?”
“Uh, no, go ahead.”
Four more words!
“Yeah, I’m checking my books out now.” The patron lies to their remote intimate. I’m the one doing the checking out. As the patron begins to return to the chicken possibilities I interrupt.
“You have a 30 cent late charge on your card.”
“What? Wait. I’ll see you in a few minutes. I better go.” The patron closes their cell phone.
We conclude our business.
Now let’s look at my colleague’s approach.
He is sitting peaceably at the checkout desk. He is alphabetizing requests. A noisy patron approaches and he contentedly checks out their items.
Even I, nursing my bitterness and irritations, am sort of moved by the beautiful simplicity of my co-workers method. This is not some lightweight fly by night approach. It is, in its way, the expression of an unassailable philosophy that traces a rich pedigree back into the bosom of Buddhism. We have several books on this, and though they don’t get checked out too much, perhaps people should try one or two along with their movies about people being dismembered. But it doesn’t stop there. This philosophy runs right through history up into modern best sellers like Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff that people actually do check out occasionally. That patrons can become quite contentious about one day late charges of 30 cents on Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff doesn’t refute the message. Nor does their curious interest that I not sweat the small stuff as in “It’s only 30 cents. Why won’t you just waive the charge?” No mere individual failing can touch on the philosophy in question. Indeed I only bring it up here because, well, I am doing it again. I can’t resist it; I luxuriate in bitterness, I hone endlessly on criticism, irritation fascinates me, yes, certainly, but, maybe, occasionally, hopefully, there is something else as well…
As in, one day we’ll look back on this and laugh. As in, laughter is the best medicine. As in, laugh and the world laughs with you. Fear, bitterness, irritation laughed at is defused. If I can take my petty irritations, decorate them up into elaborate, puffy, intricate confections and then, while delivering them to a place of honor, drop them sprawling, isn’t it less aggrandizement than a cautionary tale, a little mudslinging at bitterness. Is the lesson of my story of the cell phone using patron really just, “My god, people are so infuriating!” Isn’t it also, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, but help yourself to the miniscule stuff.” Or “There’s nothing wrong with war as long as it’s fought with nerf items.” Or “To our great misfortune and relief, at the right distance, everything is funny.” Isn’t it, really, the same thing in the end as the Buddhist; don’t sweat the small stuff approach. Only instead of a zero step process, it’s a two step process. Here, I’ll illustrate:
Embittered irritation + Comic retelling = Enlightenment
Sure the centered detachment of enlightenment sounds beautiful. Who wouldn’t want peace? Some of us just happen to like more controlled doses of it allowing for carefully administered amounts: Irritation, observation, recognition, tomfoolery, and bliss. Repeat as you will. This second approach works best for me for several reasons. First, pure enlightenment is kind of overwhelming. Does one lose oneself or doesn’t one? Who am I if everything is equal to me? I feel method two allows me to approach with cautious respect, yet still permits me to keep my preference for, say, cheesecake over liver. Second, as you will surely realize when you reflect on your experience and all the people you have ever encountered, enlightenment is an extremely rare and difficult state to get to. If I were to slip up and get irritated at a person who thrust a mess of items at me while chatting on a cell phone and torturing their child I might feel like I was a failure if I were going for scenario one. Under scenario two I would just think “Oooh, I should write one about cell phones!” and I’d be on my way. Finally, while the enlightened Siddhartha’s job of ferrying people across a river may be as mundane as my job, its elegance is suited to a lot of quiet attention and presence. My work requires more of a loud attention, and I feel strangely more present when I answer the phone with a clipped, cheerful, fake British accent than when I just pick up the phone and… listen.
Don’t get me wrong. I follow the way of the fool, but I’ll keep an open mind, and if my colleague’s enlightenment holds together and looks impressive enough, well, it’s never too late to just, let go.