The Best Advice So Far - umbrella

Singin’ in the Rain just may be my favorite movie of all time.

I watch the film at least once a year, and I reference lines or scenes from it often. It still gives me the same feeling it did the very first time I saw it. I laugh just as hard. My eyes still get wide at some of the dance numbers. And, of course, I sing along through the whole thing.

I dare you to watch it and not at least smile.

In Gene Kelly’s big number, his character, Don Lockwood, is feeling giddy with new love; and so, despite the torrential rain, he waves his driver on and walks home, using his umbrella as a dance prop rather than as any sort of protection. Soaked and smiling broadly as the scene ends, he hands his umbrella off to a shrug-shouldered and miserable-looking man passing the other direction.

Between gorgeous sunny streaks, we’ve also had our share of heavy rain here in Florida, where I’m spending the month of August. In fact, within my first 24 hours here, I was caught driving in the most blinding storm I can recall — the sky, road and crushing downpour all blending into one continuous sheet of gray.

And I hadn’t brought an umbrella.

Thing is, I could easily have bought one. But — call me crazy — I just figured, why bother? So I get a little wet. I’m getting wet in the ocean and pools and hot tubs anyway, right?

During one such storm, I ventured out to get a few things at the nearby grocery store. I hadn’t quite stopped dripping by the time I got in line at the register. Yet there in front of me, right in the store, an even bigger storm was brewing, lashing out at everyone nearby.

Being quite late at night, there were only two check-out lanes open: a standard lane and a 10-items-or-less lane. I was in the latter. A family of four was currently being rung and occupied the short space between the cashier and the bagging station.

The middle-aged woman between that family and me was in full rage, shouting loudly, throwing her hands this way and that to further emphasize her tirade:

“Yeah, I know you saw the g*#d@* sign! Don’t pretend that you don’t speak #$%&* English either! Yeah, you speak English plenty fine when you want something, don’t you. 10 ITEMS OR LESS! What, you need @$&*% help counting to 10? Lemme help you! ONE … TWO … THREE …

She jabbed a rigid finger at remaining items on the belt with each count.

The screaming woman continued:

… NINE … TEN! That’s right! Not 12! Not 15! Not @#$&* whatever you want! You @#$&* IMMIGRANTS come over here thinking you can do whatever the @#&% you want, while the people who LIVE HERE are supposed to just sit back and take it! Go back to wherever you came from! Maybe they’ll teach you how to COUNT!”

The family stood there red-faced. The children looked visibly shaken, cowering away from the outburst and pressing half-faces into their parents.

The belligerent woman didn’t let up. Next, she lit into the mortified cashier, a woman of about 70:

“You should’ve told them to go to the end of the other line! It’s people like you who let these @#$&*% people walk all over us! Any other store, you’d be fired for no following the rules and making them leave! I’ve been standing here all night with my five items — yeah, that’s right,” she turned to the family again, “five! Not @#$%& FIFTY! G$*d#* IMMIGRANTS!”

Now, in my estimation, the family had approximately 20 items. And “standing here all night” was approximately two minutes.

Throughout this, I was not more than three feet behind this woman, watching all of this. Many things crossed my mind. I wondered if I should intervene, say something, defend the family or the cashier. I was embarrassed at the behavior of someone who was treating others this way in the name of “America.” I wanted to somehow let the attacked family know that this woman didn’t represent most people. But something told me that engaging with her would only have prolonged the episode for all involved.

The cashier, Joan, kept her attention squarely on the family, somehow managing to ignore the invective that was underway. In what was surely her best effort to make the family feel welcomed and safe, she smiled encouragingly and apologetically at them, moving their remaining items through as quickly as possible. Payment complete, she bid them “Have a nice day” as they grabbed their few bags and made a bee-line for the door without looking back.

Joan took a slow, deep breath, then began to ring the items of the irate customer. With her best attempt at cheer, asked the woman, “Did you find everything you needed today?”

The woman was still proclaiming her outrage, “You should’ve made them move. It’s not fair that you make everyone else wait …”

Joan spoke in a light tone, “I understand how frustrating that must be. We don’t always see into the cart to know exactly how many items someone has until after we’ve begun ringing. I’ll be sure to keep an extra careful eye out next time.”

Despite Joan’s choice to exercise humility and even bear the burden of fault (instead of immediately having called for management or security, which would have been the reasonable choice), the angry woman continued to murmur her complaints until her order was completed and she stormed out.

Though the entire ordeal had lasted only minutes, Joan looked pale and harried. The storm had taken its toll. Still, she gave me the brightest smile she could manage. “How are you tonight, sir?”

I put my hand on the conveyor belt to stop its movement. I caught Joan’s eyes and smiled. I don’t believe I could have turned the tide with the previous woman’s diatribe. But this was a moment I could make the choice to do something about.

“Joan, that was an awful situation. I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of that. I can’t believe how well you handled it, focusing your attention on that family and making them feel like valued customers, and then treating that angry person with respect and dignity as well. Not many people could have held up with grace if faced with the same thing. Good job.”

Joan’s small smile broadened and her eyes moistened in true appreciation (and, I hope, pride).

I took my hand off the conveyor and she began scanning my few items.

Blip. Blip. Blip.

“I’d also like to speak to your manager,” I added, “to let them know how impressed I am with you, Joan.”

Joan looked around as if she were being filmed by news crews and cameras were flashing her way. She clearly was not accustomed to compliments.

The attendant at the nearby customer-service desk, who’d been watching the whole thing, spoke up: “I’ll call a manager right now for you.”

Joan finished ringing my items and, as I paid, thanked me profusely for my kindness. Meanwhile, the manager had arrived. I stepped out of the lane so Joan could ring the next customer, but spoke loudly enough so that she could hear me. I told the manager about the incident and how extraordinarily Joan had dealt with all involved.

A smile crept across the manager’s face and he spoke even more loudly than I had. “Great job, Joan! I’m buying you lunch tomorrow!” Then to me but just as loudly, “Joan is one of my very best employees.”

A small round of applause broke out, led by another cashier but including all nearby workers and even customers.

Joan blushed, grinning broadly.

On my way out, I caught her eye one more time and smiled affectionately.

As the exit doors slid open, I felt just as I imagine Gene Kelly had giving away his umbrella — then singing and dancing out into the rain.

The Best Advice So Far: Be an umbrella.

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