Sep 6, 2012

No Problems

For the briefest of moments, our eyes locked, and the Man knew I'd seen him.

I'd popped into a late-night convenience store; bigger than a 7-11 or NightOwl, but smaller than a mainstream supermarket. One of those near-the-city ones that stay open until midnight or so, to catch the homeward bound, the night shifters, the lonesome and the restless.

I was searching for milk, but as is so often the case these days, the milk was nowhere near the cheese, cream or juice displayed in front of me, in a refrigerated back corner of the store. It's a sort of supermarket apartheid: keeping the whites separate, forcing you to go the long way around to fetch your necessities, past the chocolate, past the chips, past the ... oh, are those on special?

I turned on my heel and walked past the first stack of shelves, casually tilting my head to the side as my body moved forward.

And I saw him.

I didn't even stop moving, and yet I can remember in that eternal instant I was still.

The Man was barefoot. A long, straggly brown beard fell from his haggard face, beaten in length only by his matching hair, receding on the forehead, tied back in a rough ponytail. He wore tracksuit pants and a baggy, oversized brown jumper. One hand was holding the bottom of his jumper away from his belly.

The other hand was tucking something up inside the billowing garment.

I didn't see what the item was; I can't even remember the theme of that particular aisle.

But the Man's hairy face froze in recognition. He'd seen my eyes widen as I walked past. He knew I'd witnessed him shoplifting. Breaking a commandment, no less.

If I had been a cartoon character, it would have been at this point a tiny angel and equally tiny devil would have popped into existence on my shoulders.

"I should report him," I reasoned.

"But he's... unfortunate," I replied.

"It's wrong," I retorted.

"A small crime," I responded. "Is it worth creating a fuss?"

I kept walking, and headed straight to the check-out lane.

I still didn't know what I would say to the kind-looking lady manning the express queue, the only cashier constantly open at that time of night. I placed my items on the counter, then realised I didn't have everything.

"I forgot the milk. Do you mind if I...?"

"No problems," she said, smiling.

I could see the milk propped up in another refrigerated section in the other back corner of the store. I made my way over there, still trying to work out what to do.

I grabbed a one-litre bottle, and headed back, still trying to work out what to say.

"That's $14.60," said the cashier, still smiling. I handed over a $50 note - and it struck me.

The idea.

Maybe I could help in a way that would make it right for everyone - the store, and the Man.

"Do you mind if I leave these here?" I said to the lady, indicating my grocery bags. "I just want to check something."

"No problems," she said, smiling.

I walked back in the direction of that first aisle, where I'd seen the Man, hoping to find him again.

My plan was simple - to ask the Man if he was having some difficulties with his shopping, and offer to pay for his groceries. Hopefully he would put the secreted item back; or at least into his basket, and I could pay for it. The store would never know, they wouldn't lose the stock, and the Man wouldn't be humiliated, or have to commit a crime.

It was a bit of a naive plan.

How was I to know the Man still had the item? How was I to know he wouldn't start yelling at me, accusing me of accusing him of something he didn't do? Was I really doing the right thing, or was I trying to assuage my a) middle-class guilt about poverty b) middle-class guilt about being reluctant to dob in a thief ... or both?

As I walked around the corner of the shelf stack, I almost ran straight into the Man.

But he wasn't alone. There was the Woman, beside him, also barefoot, in tiny blue-green cotton shorts and a faded denim jacket, her long stringy hair tied in a ponytail, streaks of faded purple amid the greying black strands. Her face had that hardness that only a life of un-fortune can create.

The Man saw me. "Yeah, good evenin', how're yer doin?" he half-mumbled as he walked past me.

I noticed his red basket. Home brand milk and bread. Nothing fancy.

I wanted to say something, to make my offer, to ask him to put the item in his jumper back on the shelf.

But the Woman was there. Did she know about the item? Would she care about the crime? Would she be embarrassed?

My mouth flapped open, but no sound emerged. The Man and Woman kept walking, heading straight to the smiling lady on the express lane. I followed them, not sure whether I would say anything.

The lady saw me, and motioned to the part of the counter where she'd put my grocery bags.

"Everything OK?" she asked, as the Man and Woman started placing their paltry buys on the counter.

I looked at them. I looked at her.

"Fine," I said. "Have a good night."

"No problems," she said, smiling.

No problems.


  1. What a beautifully told story - both funny and poignant and authentically revealing. You write such engaging prose, Nat. A delight to encouter writing that rises above craft to fully articulate your (charming) Voice.

    Thank you for sharing such personal thoughts with such candid honesty.

  2. I LOVED this post. Gregg's comment says it all, really. Wonderful.