On Customers and Kindness

I was, last night, sitting on a bench at the local mall. Christmas music played on the PA system. There were decorations strung here and there. It didn’t feel Christmassy.

The reason was simple. This mall was deserted. No customers. It’s hard to feel the Christmas spirit without the throngs of customers, the blaring of a brass band. At least, that’s how I feel about the season. Give me “Angels We Have Heard On High” played by a brass band, give me a light dusting of snow, give me throngs of shoppers sharing a communal spirit, and that’s Christmas to me.

Okay, obviously I’m daft. But we’ll take that as a starting point.

My last Christmas in Raleigh — 2005 — one night after work I stopped at Crabtree to do some last minute shopping. There wasn’t any pressure; my shopping was done, the hard-learned lesson of a Christmas disaster when the ticking timebomb that was the countdown to Christmas reared its ugly head on Christmas Eve with the sudden realization that… I’d bought absolutely nothing.

Crabtree, even at eight-ish at night, a few days before Christmas, was a bustling place, a far cry from the abandoned mall I visited last night.

I went in the Disney Store. As many people know, I love Winnie-the-Pooh, and I never passed up the chance of visiting a Disney Store and seeing what sort of cool Pooh beanies they had. (For instance, there’s a set of Pooh and friends as the Beatles, another that’s Pooh and friends as the Three Musketeers.) And as I was browsing in this crowded store — and it was crowded — I saw precisely what I wasn’t looking for.

A stuffed Uncle Scrooge doll.

How big was it? Let’s say it was 12 inches tall. As a rough guess, at the span of three years, that will suffice.

I promptly picked it up. My brother needed that, obviously.

I waited in line. I wasn’t impatient. The clerk who rang me up noticed. She had red hair. “You seem too relaxed for two days before Christmas,” she said.

I shrugged. “Why stress?”

“I wish all my customers felt that way,” she said resignedly.

Scrooge was bought. I went on my way.

People ask me sometimes what I miss about EB Games in particular, retail in general.

I miss the camaraderie with my colleagues.

I miss the customers, too.

I’ve told the story of giving two boys fifty packs of Pokemon cards; they had come in the store with their father, he’d gone to buy them one pack, and it rang up at a penny. I should have thrown them out, probably missed a price change weeks earlier. I let the two boys have the cards. The boys were ecstatic. The father said it was the nicest thing anyone had done for his sons. He gave me his phone number; if I ever wanted seats to an NC State basketball game, I should give him a call. He was their assistant coach.

There’s another customer I think of from time to time.

She called the store, hysterical. Her husband’s PlayStation 2 had been knocked on the floor by their dog. She turned it on to make sure it worked, and the CD tray wouldn’t open.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “He loves the PlayStation more than he loves me. I never touch it. I’m not allowed to touch it.”

I thought for a moment. “You say the CD tray isn’t opening. It may just be off the guiderail. With a little massaging, I think I can get it popped back in. If you want to bring it over, I’ll take a look at it.”

Fifteen minutes later, she walked in my store, the PlayStation 2 in hand. This was one of the older, bulkier models; the slimline PS2, like the one I had that caught on fire, had come out just a few months earlier.

There was no magic secret to getting a PS2 disc tray to pop back into place. Put your fingers on the front of the tray, and rock it back and forth. And you’ll know fairly quickly; if it’s going to go in, it’ll snap back in.

As I said, the woman was hysterical. She had been crying, heavily. I wondered at the fear she had; it was just a game system, and a thing that wasn’t even that important had reduced her to a quivering mass.

The CD tray didn’t pop back in. I thought I knew why.

“There’s a game in here, isn’t there?”

She nodded. She was fidgety.

“Okay,” I said.

I opened up the desk drawer. I pulled out a flathead screwdriver and a pair of pliers.

I jammed the screwdriver into the gap between the disc tray and the body of the PS2, ripped the front of the disc tray off with the pliers, and then with that off, grabbed ahold of the tray itself with the pliers and yanked.

The disc tray came out cleanly. And there was the game.

She stood there, in shocked disbelief. “Here’s what you’re going to do,” I said, as I got a CD envelope for the game.

I took the broken PS2 — yank the CD tray out like that, and it’s not going to work again — and set it aside. I then took down a new PS2 system, opened it up, pulled out the new console, and wrapped it in a bag.

“You are going to take this system home,” I said as I handed it to her, “and you’re going to hook it back up, and as far as you’re concerned this is the same system that your husband has had, and if he notices anything is amiss, you tell him that you had to chase the dog away from it before he did anything that might damage the system.”

She wanted to know why.

I didn’t give her an answer. I just told her to go, remember what I said, and it would be okay.

I sent the broken system back to the warehouse as a defective, where it was probably broken up for parts.

Why did I do that for her? Take her broken system, replace it with a new system, and send her on her way? I’d never seen her before. Chances are she hadn’t bought the system from my store, or even another EB Games. I didn’t know her name, though she did tell me where she worked. I don’t know if she ever came in my store again. I don’t know if I ever sold a game to her husband.

I couldn’t stand to see someone in pain like that.

She hadn’t done anything, except to have the misfortune to have a husband that valued his video game system more than her.

It just seemed right to do. She needed a random act of kindness.

There’s no connection between this story and Christmas, except for this.

Linus said it best in A Charlie Brown Christmas, quoting from the King James Bible — “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” That’s a good lesson for every day, every season; just be kind.

That doesn’t mean go out of your way to do something for someone, whether it’s someone you know or a complete stranger. But if it’s in your power to grant good will, what’s stopping you?

Thus endeth the philosophy lesson.

4 thoughts on “On Customers and Kindness

  1. I probably would have done the same thing you did for the hysterical woman with the PS2, with one exception:

    I would have given her the new console conditioned upon her promise that she would spend the remainder of the evening packing her shit, and then leaving that worthless asshole she’s married to.

    But that’s just me. :smile:

  2. Y’know, Geoff, at times I’ve thought about that. And then I wonder if maybe she did so on her own.

    The impression I had at the time was that she was genuinely terrified of the consequences of the PlayStation being broken. And I wondered if she was abused, if not physically then at the very least emotionally.

    I don’t know. :-/

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