After far too long of sifting through packets of dry noodles, canned fruits, and soy sauce, I finally notice a hidden cooler with bottled water. Hurriedly I walk to the counter with my prize.
The clerk is on the phone, making it clear through her body language and facial expression that I’m imposing on her conversation and my attempt to help the store to stay in business must not go unpunished.
Turning away from me, she continues her conversation in Chinese, a not so pleasant sounding language, especially when it reaches argumentative tones, which is constantly.
Impatiently, my foot taps the ground as I wait. At one minute I’m about to leave, she turns subtly towards me, raising her index finger, commanding my patience. At a minute-thirty I’m curious how much longer she can go- another 45 seconds.
Turning towards me: “One euro,” she demands sternly … What a rip-off. I’d have paid it right away, but I’m not going to reward horrendous customer service. I leave the bottle on the counter, and walk out without saying a word.
A block up is a larger grocery store. I enter and find the water, return to the front of the store. The line is a half mile long with a dawdling elderly clerk from the 1950’s, his bi-focals falling to the edge of his nose, readjusting them before he picks up each item, stopping intermittently to make conversation with a dark skinned 60 year old woman he seems to have known since birth, both for whom time moves at ¼ speed.
The pace of impatient tapping of fingers across the folded arms of patrons increases with each passing year, as we all slowly go grey. At last the elderly lady grabs her stuff, allowing the line to inch ahead.
A decade later, I’ve moved up to third in line, my singular bottle of water cradled in my arms like a child. I might have spent a decade here, but I'm set to save half a Euro- I certainly showed the rude clerk in the Chinese store what's what.
In the midst of my pride, a 50 year old man, unshaven, inebriated, a ballcap low over his face, slides to the front of the line and hands his 4 items off to his friend. The line in unison shouts at him, even in his half-drunken stupor he’s knocked a step back by its force.
“What?” he asks with weaselly innocence. As the crowd continues to express its displeasure, his friend comes to his defense like a tobacco lawyer riding in on an ashen horse, proclaiming his amigo blameless. The crowd's not having it, as the two sides growl at each other like packs of wolves ready to fight over a kill, I feel as though I'm about to get torn in half being in the middle. The good natured clerk folds his arms in protest of the quarrel, releasing them only briefly every few seconds to readjust his bifocals.
Instinct tells me to leave before the situation gets worse. Without a word, I drop my bottle of water on the counter and hurry back to the Chinese grocery store.
“Closed” reads the sign on the front door.