Vital Signs


She is a middle-aged grocery clerk, and I have seen her working at Food Lion on Sundays and holidays and late into the evening during the week. Standing at her register, she warmly greets her customers, but she could as easily be receiving tourists at an antebellum mansion on the James River or teaching Arthurian romance to gentlewomen at Sweet Briar. Although I know that she must be tired from the endless hours on her feet, she is always gracious to me as she scans my purchases, and I am inclined to compare her to the young woman, an employee at another store, who, a few weeks ago, wordlessly carted out my groceries. After tossing the plastic bags into the trunk of my car without glancing at me, she skulked away, round shouldered and surly, leaving me standing there smiling stupidly with the dollar bill which was to have been her tip still in my hand. Unlike the sullen bagger, who feels justified in her rude behavior because of her minimum-wage employment, the Food Lion's grande dame, though destined to work in a discount supermarket, remains the very soul of gentility.

The ladylike cashier is a kindred spirit to Mr. Smith, a backyard mechanic who came to my rescue one snowy Saturday when my car broke down in front of his house. When I knocked on his door asking for help, he was tuning up a truck, but he dropped everything to lend me a hand in spite of the fact that he was scheduled to work the night shift at his regular job....

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