Castrated Characters of Customer Service

Today I ate lunch from two different Prets. Yes, I ate two lunches, sort of, but that isn’t the point here. After I finished lunch from the first Pret, I went out of my way to buy an Italian Prosciutto on Artisan on Bishopsgate. Not because I feared fat shaming or judgement. I walked 5 minutes in the cold to avoid the guy at the till’s ceaseless platitudes.

“Hey, how are you? How is your day going? Are you having a good day?” I’m sorry but, Fuck OFF. Increasingly, sales assistants follow me round clothes shops saying hello. I wish they’d do something useful and get behind a till. I’m not completely anti-social. And I don’t hate people who work in shops. What I can’t stand is enforced friendliness and being press ganged into meaningless interaction.

I’d rather the slightly inappropriate, sometimes irritating and occasionally illegal encounters I have in my local supermarket. It’s a small branch of a well known chain and the staff are like members of SPLAT, the group of children immune to hypnosis by The Demon Headmaster. They’re rebels, going rogue on the corporate script, communicating off the cuff.

The good looking one, who sometimes sports the brand of beard that clears a tube station, has been chatting me up for three years. “Alright babe, you been to the gym? You’ll have to give me some training!” While some might class this as sexual harassment, when it’s delivered with good natured charm by a handsome young man, a good decade my junior, it’s more than welcome. He makes me feel attractive when I’m wearing a Primark vest for the 36th hour and even dry shampoo can’t salvage my hair.

He slipped me a bottle of Baileys once. I’m not sure why. He just passed it across the till without scanning it. I said, “have you, um — ” He said, “yep.” The manager looked up so I paid for my BOGOF loo roll and left for a night of free Baileys and bottom wiping. We’ve not spoken of it since.

Another guy has trained at the Mrs. Merton School of Customer Service. “Ah, wine, you like your wine on Friday and Saturday night, isn’t it?” This is embarrassing. And wrong. I like it every night. “It is my business to know my customers,” he says proudly. It’s like he’s dropped a dead bird on my pillow and now he’s offering his tummy for a tickle. Wrong again. “Really? You need to know that to scan my shopping? I do hope you’ll provide a running commentary on all my items. Here are some heavy flow sanitary towels — observations on those?”

One of the women keeps me apprised of my appearance. She tells me when she likes my lipstick. She lets me know when I look tired. This would make me want to punch most people. But I like her. She says it with empathy. I find myself saying, “yes, I am tired.” I care about her getting home when she finishes late. I worry that she works too much. We’re not eloping, guys. We’re not Thelma and Louise. She’s not about to blast anyone into oblivion with her pricing gun, to defend my honour. It’s just a genuine human connection.

In June, I saw The Good Looking One wearing a diamond earring and a polo shirt. I asked if it was his day off. He said no, they were wearing their own clothes for Gay Pride because, “we want to look good, innit.” He was like a child, excited about showing his friends his new tent in the garden. It was genuinely touching and in stark contrast to the supermarket up the road, that hired a bevy of stony faced heavies, to up their security presence for the day.

So while I might blush, bristle or find myself bewildered by my local supermarket’s renegade masters, I’m fond of their foibles. While society shakes its head at homogenous, plastic faces, I’m more concerned about the plastic, wiped clean personas I encounter when I buy a Chef’s Italian Chicken Salad. I’d prefer an incongruous comment about my alcohol consumption, from someone who’s talking to me of their own free will, than banal balderdash, from someone who’s been coerced into talking to me, as a form of emotional labour.

My local shop is the Fawlty Towers of supermarkets and I cherish it. If The Good Looking One, Mrs. Merton’s protege and Louise are ever cornered by the character castrators, I’ll hotwire a Ford Thunderbird convertible myself, and drive us all off a cliff.