“You’re sure the return policy is 30 days?”
The lady behind the counter nods at me.
“And I just need to get the item and the receipt?”
She nods again and hands me the tee shirts. Hmm. Usually, salespeople love talking. About store rewards and loyalty cards and summer sales. At the minimum, a cheery “have a great day!” But my sales lady is silent.
“Actually, I’m buying these tee shirts for someone else. Do you mind giving me a bag? Paper bag, if you have one, please?”
She shrugs. Then realizing that shrugging isn’t exemplary customer service behavior, she pauses and hands me a crisp, brown paper bag. I thank her, she nods and glances away as if anxious to get to the next customer. But there’s no one behind me.
I look into the bag. 4 tee shirts, but no paper. “I think you didn’t give me the receipt for the purchase.”
Her eyes go wide as she searches for the receipt. Then leaning forward slowly, she replies, with a hand over her masked mouth. “I’m new here. I’m so sorry.” Except her “so” sounds like “thho” and “sorry” sounds like “thhorry.”
As I take the receipt from her, I understand her reluctance to speak. She has a rather pronounced lisp — an interdental kind —if I was hearing it right — where the tongue moves between the front teeth. And she’s obviously pretty aware of it. Hence the nodding and shrugging rather than talking.
I shove the receipt in the bag and smile at her. “Thank you! And don’t worry. We were all new at our jobs, once.”
She nods again, possibly relieved that I didn’t ask her any more questions, and I walk out of the store.
Sitting in the car, I think long and hard about how cruel the world can be to those who don’t fit some restrictive mold of “normal.” I’ve seen it happen implicitly but also overtly to those who are different, like the saleslady.
A part of me wants to go back inside and clasp her hand and tell her her speech is lovely the way it is, and how my autistic son has speech challenges too, but we cheer him on and normalize it the best we can, and how I have an anxiety disorder, and it’s crazy hard some days, and how I battled severe depression after both my children were born, and it almost sucked the life force out of me, but here I am talking to her and how I wish I could wave a magic wand so anyone with a lisp or a tic or any other quirk would not be mocked but treated with respect and humanity because isn’t that the only decent thing to do?
But I don’t do any of that. I stay in my car and don’t step out because I am a stranger who doesn’t know her story. And if I don’t know her story, it is disrespectful of me to jump in with unsolicited support. And because she doesn’t know my story, she’d probably roll her eyes and think, “Oh, another patronizing do-gooder, who’s going to tell me I am perfect the way I was made.” Worst case, she’d feel uncomfortable and singled out when she’s obviously trying to hide her particular “impediment.” Or if she’s having a hard day, she would be annoyed at the random busybody who can’t leave her alone. At the least, she’d be cynical because society has hurt her to the point where she covers her masked mouth before speaking. So forgive her if she doesn’t really trust easily.
And while I advocate loudly for those who are different, I also know when to step back and not trample on someone’s dignity. The advocacy line is blurry and one that must be walked with complete certainty.
So I don’t do anything. I belt myself in and drive home, all the while thinking about the saleslady. Not for the first time; I wish the world was kinder to people with differences. Mental health disorders. Disabled folks. People on the neurodiverse spectrum. Folks with speech and gait differences. Those who have tics and tremors. Those who look physically different. Anxious people and depressed people, and those who have yet to name their state of being. The world needs to show them kindness and the space to be their authentic selves.
How does the old saying go? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Hand to God, that lisp was beautiful.