One night a customer told me that if I didn't stop looking at him he was gonna knock me out.
A couple of hours earlier he walked into the Wiggly Piggly without shoes on. He had on an old gray sweatshirt, jean shorts and didn't seem self-conscious to be going around in socks.
He shopped deliberately and diligently, asking my supervisor for help twice before coming across me with a handbasket full of items. I wanted to make myself known because my supervisor’s time was more important than mine.
"I used to work at a Wiggly Piggly too," he said. I tried to show some interest but avoid being chummy. He continued shopping.
I was an aisle away when he dropped his basket and announced that he couldn't pay for his items. “I need to call my credit card company.”
My supervisor allowed him to use the phone. After a while it was clear they couldn't solve his problem so he sat at the back of the store, by the pharmacy.
Twenty minutes passed before he said he was leaving. He needed to use the bathroom, but ours wasn't available to customers -- especially the shady looking ones. He said he’d come back.
Tired of seeing the basket set awkwardly in the middle of the aisle, I eventually placed it behind the counter, half-expecting to be putting the items back myself by closing time.
Forty-five minutes later he reappeared with a hispanic man who looked unhappy to be here.
I rushed behind the counter to present to him his basket. I asked, in a familiar tone, if he'd figured out the “money situation.” His energy was different now. I thought maybe he'd gone out to do drugs with his buddy here.
He called the credit card company again to complain. Finally, around 10:30, he came to my register and tediously unloaded the items while mumbling about what a shitty night it had been. His buddy waited off to the side, stiff like a diminutive body guard.
Having finally emptied his basket, I announced his total and he began going through his pockets as if caught off guard by the checkout process. More customers came into the store and a line grew behind him. My supervisor opened the other register and hurriedly sought to alleviate the line.
A minute seemed to pass, then another. This was a first for me -- one person disrupting the night like this -- and quietly I allowed myself to be amused.
He looked up from his struggle and caught me smirking, then his tone shifted: "Do you think this is funny?"
He clearly had my attention, but raised his voice again, "You better stop lookin' at me like that or I'm goin' to knock you upside your fuckin’ head!"
He stared me down -- our brief exchange earlier when he'd told me he used to have my same job seemingly forgotten -- "This isn't fuckin' funny! I can't find my fuckin' credit card..."
Instead of trying to understand the story behind the credit card -- if he even had a credit card -- I was overcome by an adrenaline rush and entered fight-or-flight mode. I tried to stay as present with the feeling as possible -- as if to try to own it, instead of letting it own me.
He kept rifling through his pockets, now cursing me for his problems. For a moment I was terrified as I imagined him pulling a gun out of one of those pockets. Could I duck under the counter fast enough? I wanted to dial 911, but instead I froze in fear. Was I really in danger or just paranoid? Whatever the answer, the question was definitely above my pay grade.
Aside from glancing over occasionally, my supervisor ignored the situation entirely. I never respected her less.
It was then that I spotted an older man, a regular customer, kind of crouching in the far aisle. I could tell he was talking to the police and I felt slightly relieved. My hero.
My supervisor allowed the crazy man to use the phone a third time and I started ringing up other customers who'd witnessed the end of the horrible transaction.
I tried to keep a straight face, pretend it was just another day at the office. They asked me what had happened."He just didn't like the way I was looking at him I guess."
Most of the Pacific Heights customers were used to dealing with the crazies at this store which also borders Polk Street. Usually, I didn’t know what I liked less, dealing with the crazies or the snobs. Today, the answer was clear.
Several more minutes passed before the two men decided to leave the store empty-handed just as two police officers walked in. I saw the older man who'd called them pump his fist, as if to say "YES!" Within a minute, the mad man was in handcuffs, sitting on the couple of steps outside.
My new friend / champion asked if I was okay. The Hispanic man then told me he works at a restaurant. The guy dined and couldn't pay so he’d followed him here to retrieve the money.
One of the officers soon came in to get my side of the story. My new friend and I described our fears about the mad man having a weapon.
The officer confided they didn't have much to hold him for, and perhaps he'd spend a night in jail. He said the man is a local who gets into trouble sometimes...
I'd see him around the store again.
*Tales of the Wiggly Piggly ~ Crazy things happen in retail, especially in San Francisco. These are my stories as a checkout clerk at a local drug store, under the pseudonym Wiggly Piggly.