Tonight played out in some very unexpected ways for me. I had to go to 3 different stores- Cracker Barrel, Walmart, and Stein Mart. Three very different stores, in three very different parts of town, with three very different clientele.
My first stop was Cracker Barrel, right off the highway, on the far end of town from where I live. I had to return a book on CD I had "rented" from their library. (It's a fabulous service and I highly recommend it.) If you have ever been in a Cracker Barrel you know that the store patrons and restaurant patrons all pay at the same check out counter. I got in line behind one older gentleman. A line formed to the side of the man by people coming out of the restaurant. I was in no rush and let 3 people go ahead of me, even though I was there first. They never even noticed I was standing there. Another older gentleman did see me and saw how many people I allowed to go past me. He insisted I go next, even though, quite frankly, I really didn't care. My business was transacted quickly and easily and I left.
My next stop was Walmart. We have 2 of these behemoths in our town. One is brand spanking new and is right by my house. That was where I had purchased the items I was returning today. It's clean, bright, and rather nice. When I shop there I expect to run into people I know. I also expect courteous treatment. Don't get me wrong, there's still the "people of Walmart" crowd, but for the most part, it's not a bad shopping experience.
And then there is the other Walmart in town- the one in the ghetto. Except it isn't in a ghetto, it's just closer to the ghetto than the other store. This Walmart is actually right next to the "nice" mall, Target, Best Buy, and all of the other big stores in town. It's smack dab in the middle of everything. And yet most people avoid it like the plague (I wish I had). It's dingy, dark, and full of the scariest, nastiest people you have ever seen.
A few days ago I went to the Good Walmart to return some items. I walked straight in, went to customer service, got helped immediately, and left. I got home and realized I forgot the second bag of items, and needed to go back and return them. Because I had to drive to the far end of the galaxy to go to Cracker Barrel, I stopped at Ghetto Walmart.
Before I even got out of my car my bad experience began. I nearly got hit in the parking lot by a shopping cart that was haphazardly shoved across the row of cars. I had to wait for cars to stop driving by before I could cross through the parking lot to walk in the store. Before I even got past the entrance a woman yelled at me to stop and come back. She had to tag all of the items in my bag to show that I had brought them into the store. I had about 20 items. I've seen plenty of stores put a little sticker on a bag or item to show that it was outside merchandise or a return. But this time she actually scanned each and every item and put a barcoded sticker on my items, with the price visible. Very unusual.
While I was standing there (the woman was anything but quick or agile), a group of young men came through the door. The looks and comments they shot my way made me want to run far, far from the building. The words "gang rape" were very present in my mind. There I was standing in one of the largest retailers in the country, and I have never felt more unsafe. (Which is saying something when you consider some of the places I've traveled around the world.) I asked the woman to go a little faster with the tagging. I really wanted out of there.
When she was finally done I made my way to customer service. It is a very small area with only room for 1-2 shopping carts lined up. I did not have a shopping cart, but the 2 customers ahead of me did. The line extended out into the busy walkway area. More than one person attempted to cut the entire line and shoot for the few feet of space between the 2 women with shopping carts. A fight nearly broke out when one girl refused to get out of the line. There were probably 8-10 people in the line- and there was most clearly a line! But for some reason several people thought that they could just rudely usurp the space and cut the line. Finally the woman ahead of me pushed her cart uncomfortably close to the woman in front of her so that no one would do that again.
When I finally got up to the register, I was surprised to watch the cashier take every single one of those stupid little tags off my stuff! She didn't even scan them! I asked what they were for. She explained they had a problem with people bringing in outside merchandise, cutting tags off new merch in the store, and then "returning" it. That makes no sense to me. I think she tried to make up an excuse, and doesn't realize its stupid. There are a dozen scams and shoplifting tricks I can imagine that make more sense. But that's neither here nor there. While she was busy re-scanning all of my items I could hear the alarms go off at the door- multiple times! More than one person was trying to take inventory out that had not been cleared. I could hear yelling as one person put up a big fight over it. I also watched as security was called to the door for another issue.
While I was being helped two different people tried to again bypass the line to demand service without waiting. Another person took her child out of the shopping cart so he could have a full-blown temper tantrum on the floor right in the middle of customer service.
Oh and the nasty group of boys that had looked me over when they entered the store, walked past and pointed at me again.
By the time I had returned my items and could leave, I couldn't run out of there fast enough. I just wanted out. It was an awful experience.
But it wasn't over yet.
A moment after I walked out, I heard the door alarms go off again. I kept walking. I heard yelling. I didn't care. I didn't look back. I went to my car, got in, and left. I had barely made it to the road when police cars starting to appear out of nowhere, zooming past me, lights and sirens blaring. All I know is that they turned into the Walmart parking lot.
I left and went to my next destination- Stein Mart. In this town Stein Mart is a fairly upscale store. It caters to the slightly older people of this town, but then, most stores around here do. It is a nice, quiet store, clean, well-lit, and generally a pleasant experience. I had a pair of shoes I wanted to either return or exchange.
I went straight to the customer service desk holding a shoebox. There was no one in line. I asked if I needed to leave the box at the counter while I looked at other shoes, or could I keep it with me? The man smiled and said it was up to me, but he would be happy to hold it for me so it wouldn't be in my way. (And in no way, shape, or form, made me feel like a common criminal just for walking in the door.) I didn't carry my purse in the store. I only intended to be there for a moment. I had my wallet, phone, and keys in my hand. I went to the shoe section and tried to find the right size shoes. I felt comfortable and safe enough in the store that I put my keys, wallet, and phone down on the sales display while I searched around. I walked several feet away from my belongings, never once concerned that they might get stolen.
I found the right shoes, exchanged them, and left. I went to the 5 Guys restaurant next door and got dinner. As I was walking back to my car 30 minutes later I realized I didn't have my keys. I double checked my pockets and confirmed they were not on me. I went back to 5 Guys and checked my table. I couldn't recall if I had them in there. I went back to Stein Mart and went straight to the customer service desk. The same man that had helped me before was still there. I explained I couldn't find my keys and asked if he had them. He did not. He called for a second person to come over and help me. I should explain that I was completely calm. I was very confident I'd be able to find my keys where I had placed my belongings while looking for shoes earlier. I was not anxious or worried. But the man insisted on getting someone to go help me look. She followed me right back to the shoe department. I found my keys exactly where I predicted they would be. Another woman sat a few feet away trying on shoes and told me she had been watching my keys for a while. She had noticed them right after I left and was going to keep watching them to make sure no one else took them. She remembered me and was going to make sure I came back for them. (I believed her. She was very sincere and kind.)
Three very different experiences in three very different stores but all in the same town. Why? Why were the customers- the residents of this town- so very different in the different stores? Does income make a person more polite? Does poverty give you an excuse to be rude? I will not let this fall into the discussion of racial profiling. I will only say this- at each store I was the only white person. Every person that helped me, every person in every line, at every store was of a different race. This leads me to believe it has more to do with poverty and income than anything else. And gives me reason to pause and think that community development is more needed than I previously believed.