Making up morals

Most of the time, I enjoy writing; I do it to rant, to relate an amusing story, or to – in my own little, insignificant way – fight against the social injustices that I deplore. But sometimes, writing is difficult for me — especially when the topic under discussion is one that I’d rather ignore, deny, or hide behind; a truth that I’d like to make go away, or let mold beneath several layers of carpet, or have exist quietly and permanently behind endless layers of wind-weathered rock. But it’s important that, when you write, you tell the truth, even if it’s an ugly truth. I believe that, and that is why – three days after writing this post – I’ve mustered the guts to post it. It may not seem like scandalous, “headliner” material to you, but for me, the subject matter of this post centers around a truth that is a very honest and very challenging admission for any person to make: that we’re all, at heart, capable of being dishonest. And evil.

Obviously, you’ve gone to the supermarket before for groceries; whether it’s been at a Publix, a Walmart, a Piggly Wiggly, or any other number of grocery stores, you’ve walked inside, grabbed a cart or a basket, filled it up with enough goods to last you the night, the weekend, or, if you were feeling a little extra adventurous, the entire week, and then you’ve made your trek up to what your eye has gaged to be the shortest register in the store to have your goods bagged (paper, plastic, or, if you’re really great, something reusable), to pay for them, and to leave. I still remember my first trip to the grocery store; well, that’s to say, my first official, all-by-myself “big girl” trip. My family and I lived in McCalla at the time and my mother sent me barreling down the interstate one weekend afternoon with a list tucked into my jean skirt pocket, asking me at least 3 times before I had left the house if I remembered what brand of Folgers coffee creamer my dad liked best. “Remember,” she admonished me in a serious tone, gesturing with her hands and widening her eyes for dramatic emphasis, “it’s in the blue and white container and it will say HAZELNUT in BIG letters across the front. Got it?”

“Got it, mom — I promise I won’t forget. It’s literally on the list.”

I felt very proud of myself as I shopped around Publix that afternoon, thoughtfully selecting and placing items into the grocery cart and leisurely weaving my way down each aisle. I compared the prices of store brands with name brands, mentally assessed whether getting the 4oz or 9oz bottle of extra virgin olive oil would be the most cost-effective, and referenced the store’s sales flyer at least once as I tiptoed down each individual aisle, wanting to make sure that I didn’t miss a thing. Grocery shopping was, to me, very serious business.

The most rewarding part of the shopping experience took place when I walked up to the front of the store to check out and the cashier looked at  me – square in the eye – and spoke to me as if I was a real customer, not just a little girl playing pretend and with her mom quietly trailing her just around the corner. I had done such a fabulous job shopping, in fact, that I was able to reclaim one of my mother’s carefully allotted twenty dollar bills along with a few of her ones. Beaming; I was just beaming with pride.

And over the years, shopping never really lost its charm for me. I still love planning meals (even if I’m not the one who cooks them; Chris does 99% of the time) and shopping for good deals, and I think that it’s important for a person to enjoy a task like grocery shopping. You’ll do it your whole life; you can dislike it, but there’s no point in disliking it. That will do nothing for you. Anyways, this evening (current life), on my drive home from work, I made two stops; one, to pick up a few groceries at our local health food store, and two, to grab two cartons of to-go Chinese food at our favorite local restaurant. During stop one, it was raining a little, so I hurried into the health food store and then – as is my custom – walked leisurely down each aisle, picking up the items that a growling stomach prompts one to: pizza, chocolate mint cookies, a white, cardboard cup full of freshly-prepared garlic mashed potatoes from the hot bar and bagged Chilean lime potato chips that were cooked in avocado oil. I also – as a splurge – picked up two small boxes of the only perfume I’ve ever loved wearing: Pacifica’s Mediterranean Fig. Light, subtle, and not overly feminine. It smells almost like a forest. I walked to the checkout line and greeted my cashier with a smile, loading my groceries onto the counter and stepping away briefly to return my handheld shopping basket to the front of the store. When I returned, I noticed, on the screen, that the chips had rung up incorrectly: “Oh — I think that those avocado chips were on sale, but let me go make sure before you change anything!” I ran to the “chip aisle”, double checked and they were, indeed, on sale. The cashier corrected it with a smile and announced my grand total: $38.62. I paused; even with my old employee discount (that the previous store manager had graciously left on my name record) considered, $38.62 still seemed pretty.. small. “Are you sure that you rang up everything?” I asked quietly, eyeing the two bottles of perfume.

“Yep!” The cashier answered cheerfully, continuing to bag the items. I had a sinking feeling in my gut, knowing that she must have forgotten to ring up the perfume. At $14 per 1-oz bottle, it would have been at least $23 with tax, even considering the employee discount. During those few seconds of hesitation, card held in mid-air, I mentally rang up the other, remaining items: $14 for two vegan pizzas, $4 for two sale bags of chips, about three bucks for over-priced hot bar mashed potatoes and three boxes of cookies priced at $2-$3 each (plus a few other, small items that I just pinned a $5 on) just didn’t add up to $15 dollars. More like $40. “Okay,” my mouth uttered in agreement before I could stop it. I swiped my card, signed the receipt, and smiled “goodbye,” hurrying to the car with my full paper bag of goods. I slammed the car door and immediately felt sick. I knew that I should just look at the receipt, but I didn’t want to. Why should it bother me at all if she HAD neglected to scan those two bottles? It’s not like I was being underhanded.. I even went out of my way to ASK the lady if she was SURE that she had scanned everything. This sort of made sense.. right? I paused. I mean, I didn’t exactly ask “Oh, hey, are you sure that you remembered to ring up those two pricey bottles of botanical perfume?” But I mean, it was UNDERSTOOD. Clearly.

By now, my car was paused at a red light and my knee was jittering anxiously, apparently in sympathy with the achy feeling in my gut. I called Chris.

“Hey.”

“Hey babe! You heading home now?”

“Yeah, got the Chinese and stopped by the health food store. Look.. I think that my cashier actually forgot to ring up the two bottles of perfume that I got tonight. Is that.. okay?” My face contorted; it sounded so bad when you said it out loud.

He paused. “Did she bag them?”

“Yeah.. I mean, I even asked her if she remembered to ring EVERYTHING up and she said ‘yes.'”

“..did you check the receipt to make SURE that she didn’t ring them up?”

(A sigh) “No, Chris, not yet. I’m driving. But the total was like $36 and I know that’s wrong.”

“Well why don’t you just take them back then?”

“Becaaaaaause,” I exhaled irritably, “I don’t want to drive ALL the way back there, CHRIS. Ughhhhhhh,” I groaned, feeling like a pirate, a criminal; a vagabond. “I am such a bad person.”

“Rose, you aren’t a bad person! Chill out. We can take them back; it’s so not a big deal. I mean, SHE did bag them, right? You didn’t like.. slip them into the bag?”

“OF COURSE NOT, CHRISTOPHER. Goodness gracious. I’m just going to call them when I get home, have them ring the perfume up over the phone and then I can pay for it that way.”

So about 5 seconds after walking in the door at home, I googled the store’s phone number, called it TWICE (no one answered the first time and I was totally feeling beyond frantic at this point), and finally, a gentleman named Tom answered.

“Hi! My name is Rose and I was in there shopping a little bit ago; I just got home, checked my receipt and noticed that two of the items that I brought home with me aren’t listed on the receipt.” Tom seemed surprised by the phone call but was very helpful, taking down my name, phone number, and the item information. “Thank you for calling! We’ll get back with you tomorrow about payment information.” I hung up the phone, tried to eat my Chinese food and watched three episodes of Friends on the television set, but the sick, achy feeling in my gut wouldn’t go away. I had practically stolen. Essentially. And if I hadn’t told Chris about it over the phone, WHO knows if I would have ever even called to report the oversight.

“Oh of course you would have called, ROSE,” the inner me cried. “Quit being so dramatic about this. You’d never steal! That’s not you.. that would be so wrong!” I stopped to consider a childhood memory: walking into a gas station with my childhood friend, Nicole, and watching her steal a pack of Pokemon cards. I felt so guilty about it when I remembered the incident 7 years later that I’d had my mom mail a check to the gas station; no explanation. Just a check for about $8. Remembering that incident gave me a quick wave of comfort (see? you’re clearly not THAT bad), but the achy feeling in my gut returned quickly… and with a force.

“Yeah.. but people change, and I’m PRETTY sure that, in the past, either THAT store or some OTHER store has let a vegan cookie slip past the scanner, and I don’t think that I ever said anything about that.” And then there are other, somewhat similar situations that will, naturally, come up from time to time: a cashier mistakenly rings up an exotic pomegranate as a simple, inexpensive pink lady apple, or charges me for regular bananas when the sticker CLEARLY reads “organic”. What do you say then, huh? What makes the difference? Really; what gives?

I think that the honest answer is, it is no different. Who knows how many times I’ve noticed the “mix up” then and there, or later on that day, and didn’t make amends. It’s all the same. So, with these thoughts running marathons in my mind, I sat there on the couch, just fuming at my immorality. Chris would look up from the television and over at me every once in a while (my face, apparently, saying it all) and just shake his read. “Rose, you aren’t a terrible person,” he pleaded with me. “You called, you fixed it, and everything is fine. Just chilllllll out.” But regardless of my effort to make reparations, the root of my sorrow was and is that I was capable of deceit. Lying. Stealing. Of feigning ignorance at the honest oversight of a young, sweet, and tired cashier. How lousy is that.

Ahhh, morals. Some of us follow the ones that are neatly outlined for us in rule books, and the rest of us are left to make up our own. I honestly don’t know who’s better off.

So tonight’s post is, I guess, pretty inconclusive. It isn’t a rant or a giddy celebration; it’s just the ramblings of a 23-year-old Average Joe(sephine?) who couldn’t stand wearing the scent of stolen perfume, but who also didn’t immediately have the fortitude to right her wrong at the register. Character is revealed (and cemented) by the little things that we do or don’t do; I firmly believe that… and if tonight’s travesty has taught me anything AT ALL about life, it’s to do what is right without thinking about it, without deliberating over it, and without even trying to justify acts that are clearly underhanded, absolutely unlawful, or just plain mean.

Before closing, I’ve gotta say: the internet is a curious thing. I keyed the phrase “my cashier forgot to scan an item” into Google tonight (purely for kicks), and the sheer number of relevant search results that popped up was impressive. Many people have experienced what I have and have talked about it, and in each story that I read, I noticed a repeating theme: consumers, people, seeking reassurance from others that, by saying nothing and leaving the store, they had done the right thing (or, at least, an okay thing.. that it wasn’t solidly wrong). I have actually, personally, in the past, had an unnamed friend brag to me that a cashier at Walmart had forgotten to ring up a school backpack that she had set onto the register and then, ultimately, left the store with. At the time, I laughed about it with her – a little cautiously – and thought to myself, “hmm.. good fortune I suppose?” But now, I’m not so sure about that. I’m not going to be the conscience for anyone else, because I can’t and shouldn’t be — it’s not my place. But I almost know that a cashier has forgotten to ring up a cookie or a pair of socks that was in my cart before and, when I’ve caught it, whether it was with one foot out the store’s door or by the time I had already returned home, I probably didn’t call. And that was probably the wrong call to make.

It’s honestly, probably always wrong to say nothing when you see and know that an error has been made — even if it’s esteemed to be a small one. At least, that is my thought on the matter as of late, and this is coming from the girl who, again, at the tender age of 8, walked into a 7-eleven and distracted the cashier while her twelve-year-old friend stole a pack of Pokemon cards. This same little girl felt so bad about the incident that, 7 years later, she tracked down the gas station on Google and had her mother mail a check for the approximate amount of the then-pack of Pokemon cards. And then 8 years after that, present day, here she is: weeping over a murky indiscretion that involved an honest and kind cashier, two elegant bottles of perfume, and the swift and shaky slide of a debit card. Oh morals. Oh turbulent sea of gray.

Intentions are good, and I put a lot of stake in them, but intending to do the right thing alone – by itself – is not enough. Not intending to steal is… great — it’s kind of really important, actually – but letting slips like these happen and then failing to address them is, at the end of the day (and at the register), dishonest. Plain and simple. It is what it is. Intentions are good; doing is powerful. That’s what I learned this week.

Not a stealer but almost,
Aun Aqui

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