Retail has always been a shitshow. The Twilight Zone’s season 1 episode “The After Hours” isn’t about mannequins that come to life, it’s about how stupid retail managers can be, even when they’re ostensibly trying to assist a customer. But COVID dug its chipped nails into that heaping dump too, making things even worse. The fake politeness, the expectation of subservience, unfair wages, lack of benefits, sexual harassment, short lunch breaks, forced internal competition, etc, etc. At the beginning, COVID added the indignity of telling people to wear masks correctly. Now, retail workers like me have to deal with people gloating that no one has to wear a mask and, hey, didn’t you hear the CDC said you don’t have to wear that stupid thing anymore, you, I shit you not, “square”? (Ha ha, just kidding, we all definitely need to start wearing masks again.)
Prolonged exposure to this behavior can make anyone lose their mind. The texture of the social contract we enter into with one another, in its most ideal form, is soft to slightly irritating. On the other end of the cash register, it’s like 800-grit sandpaper. You can see that reflected in the flood of workers across the country walking out on their jobs because they can’t stand what they’ve always known: stockholders are laughing at them for sticking it out through shit pay and bad treatment.
Now, I work in a bookstore. I’m less interested in cataloging the horrors I dodge because of it (I know there are much worse retail labor experiences) and more interested in making it clear how dehumanizing any customer service job can be, even in the best scenarios. It’s not picking up after adults who somehow can’t spell and therefore don’t put a pile of books they picked out away. It’s not the constant charade of showing people where the bathroom is or telling them how a card reader works. It’s not the irritation that comes from explaining to customers that we don’t price-match with Amazon or partner with them in any way, shape, or form. To be clear, it is all of those things and more, but the true indignity is how these encounters are played out: with attitude. And attitude is everything. There are those who understand this frustration and those who, because they once worked a shitty job in the ’80s and are now retired, don’t understand how everyone could be so soft these days. As if retail is some sort of penance, as if every worker is a pimply teenager rather than grad students and single moms and would-be retirees. Customers affect a demeanor of antagonistic helplessness. The truly horrible ones are often those attempting to show you some form of pity, as if their condescension will make the interaction more pleasant.
During these situations, I used to pretend the person at hand was an alien and therefore not responsible for their actions. Now, I simply imagine violence. Really, every retail or hourly worker should be granted one punch to dole out to the customer of their choice, renewable each pay cycle. To test this idea, I started asking around, to current and former co-workers: What would they do to the rudest customer if there was no fear of retaliation? Physical violence was traded in favor of verbal humiliation. “I’d want to be able to tell them what a piece of shit they are,” said one. Another said they’d relish the chance to snatch away and smash any customer’s phone that was on speaker in an enclosed space.
You might find this level of animosity frightening. After all, much like racism, no one believes they have the capacity to be a shitty customer. Even those who used to work in retail have funny ways of showing it, their constant “I know, I know, I’m terrible” following closely on the heels of some outlandish request, some urgent but impossible-to-meet need. The obvious answer here is revolution. The nearest step, really the thinnest, most meager offering to ameliorate this rage (while fundamentally changing everyone’s lives for the better) is higher wages. But I don’t know that these measures can compensate for the full range of people’s irrationality.
In early June, when the U.S. was acting like everything was going to be okay, a video was making the rounds on Twitter. A white man in a Wal-Mart appears to be ramming his shopping cart into a female employee, who’s being restrained by one of her coworkers in a road visibility vest. The white guy, wearing shorts, a hoodie, a baseball cap, and the disgusting combination of long white socks with dark shoes, drags the cart away. Obviously, there’s a small crowd of spectators watching all of this unfold, to say nothing of the person filming it. It’s Wal-Mart so there are at least three American flags visible throughout the short 15 seconds of this clip. But, for the most part, the entire exchange is quiet. The store doesn’t seem to be crowded and all other conversations have ceased. There are scattered voices shouting in the cowardly way that scared onlookers do when they want to encourage a fight while also not being noticed by the people fighting. Someone even starts clapping as the guy walks away. Then the woman from before runs after him and, out of frame, decks the guy. He stumbles, dazed, then falls over, out cold.
Videos like this get collated into Youtube compilations with titles like “50 Most Epic Fails June 2021,” though the titular fail could be extended to any number of elements from this situation: the man’s judgment and subsequent fall, the spectators’ inaction, the general scab of society peeling off each of us one by one. Who is this woman? Where did she learn to throw a punch? More importantly, because she almost certainly got reprimanded in some way by management, why isn’t she being praised by Wal-Mart as a retail patron saint instead of castigated for breaking decorum?
That same month, a 41 year-old woman named Laquitta Willis was shot and killed in Georgia by a man who was frustrated that she kept asking him to pull his mask over his face. Oh, not funny anymore. The fact is none of these stories are. I can find violent outliers like these all day — there’s real danger in taking common decency for granted. Baked into the daily microaggressions that make up a standard store visit are the opposing tensions of contempt and appreciation, pity and gratitude, sadness and joy. Leaving good tips and cleaning up after yourself at a mid-scale restaurant are not virtuous favors bestowed upon those select wage servants who dote on you in just the right manner, they’re the bare minimum. Not some Purge-like underbelly of ill will should keep the people who don’t flush the toilet in a public bathroom afraid of being even more annoying (I mean, it should), but because humanity gets lost in the shuffle when someone’s job description involves feeding you or driving you or repairing your broken sink.
Maybe somewhere down the line we’ll have dragged ourselves kicking and screaming into a society that doesn’t equate vengeance with justice. Maybe knocking out an unruly stranger won’t feel necessary because everyone is gentler with each other. We will all have somewhere to sleep and food to eat and access to adequate medical care and maybe all those things will smooth out our rough edges so nobody resorts to using their shopping cart like a cattle prod. Who knows? .
I can live in the hope that we will somehow remake the world and that it will inspire us all to goodness. Until then, though, I still think the one punch idea is worth considering.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.