She swept the milk, eggs, flour and sugar one by one across the counter, punched each price into the cash register, and hit the total button. Our receipt churned out in a curl. She glanced at us and pressed another button. The receipt lengthened to include a blank space at the bottom. With a quick flick of the wrist, she ripped the receipt away, pressed it against the edge of the counter, and tore off the blank space at the bottom. In that space, she wrote down our family name and the total amount we owed. On the wall behind her, she taped it in a place for others to see. She handed us the remaining part of our receipt and we walked out with our groceries.
Growing up in Cincinnati in the 70s was hard for a number of families. Our industries were opened up to global competition. We were not ready. A number of them collapsed. Skills which had taken years to acquire became obsolete. Jobs were scarce. My family and other families struggled through the long and painful adjustment. Shopping at our neighborhood grocery store, Tom’s Grocery Store, was just one example. It did not happen all the time, but it happened. Indeed, it’s an example of one of the many unspoken costs of unemployment.
In all fairness to Tom, by allowing us to pay later, we were able to smooth out our consumption between paychecks. Tom provided a valuable service to us and I believe other families in the community. I imagine he received lots of requests. I can only imagine the stress he endured having to say “no” to some families. I can also imagine the struggle he confronted trying to get neighborhood families to pay back. I can also understand his use of public shaming to get families to pay back. Public shaming is a tried and true method. However, I wonder whether or not he knew the true price of his groceries.
We paid for our groceries in “Yes, sirs”. We paid for our groceries in feigned deference. We paid for our groceries in the reaffirmation of Tom’s elevated rank and status. As soon as we walked through the glass double doors of his store, the tone, demeanor, and physical bearing of my parents would change. How do I say this? It became more docile. Maybe, I misinterpreted their behavior. Maybe, I was too young to fully understand and appreciate the rituals of rank and place. Maybe, my memory is incorrect. I do not know. I do know that these moments, however fleeting, left a lasting impression upon me.
Tom was not a villain by any measure. Tom did a lot of good. He employed people in the community. He provided a safety net for my family and others. He sponsored little league baseball teams. By many measures, he was an ideal local business owner, a civic leader even. However:
I wonder whether his use of public shaming was effective at getting my family and other families to pay back.
I wonder whether my family and other would have paid back even without the use of public shaming.
I wonder whether it is preferable at times to miss a meal here and there instead of paying such a high price.
There is one thing I do not wonder about. I know that it is possible to assist others who find themselves in a disadvantaged situation (whether temporarily or permanently) without exacting such a high price.
I imagine that this story may make my parents feel uncomfortable. It should not. When the options ran out, they walked through those glass double doors and they paid the price that had to be paid to put food on the table. I respect that…immensely.
This blog was originally posted on April 3, 2013.
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