Shea works in my local Sainsbury Local, and I don’t know him at all. I like him enormously. He is tall, lanky, probably in his mid-twenties, and he has the confidence of an old hand. He calls all his male customers ‘mate’ and all his female customers ‘darling’, and he takes excellent care while packing the bags to stack the stuff I buy in them sensibly. The first time I witness him in action I don’t talk to him beyond the ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that get you through checking out, but I’m fascinated by his quiet concentration and diligence that he combines with an unalloyed pride in, and joy for, what he is doing. His long-armed gestures are almost those of a conductor who here does not conjure notes from a band of musicians, but directs these goods from their basket where they need to go in my bag, precisely.
On my next visit to the store, he’s wearing a name badge on which it says ‘Khalid’. This is the first and so far only time that I talk to him. I say: ‘Last time I saw you, you were called “Shea.”’ He laughs. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve lost my name badge. The other day I was “Matt,” but really I’m Shea.’ This makes me like him even more. Shea is Shea, whether the label says Matt, Khalid or Shea, it really doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter to me.
There’s also a very beautiful and very polite young woman at the same little store who asks me how the writing is going each time she sees me. The exchanges over the few minutes it takes to process a basket of groceries are never profound, but they are profoundly meaningful nonetheless, at that simple, non-directional, subtly subconscious and superficially purposeless level where someone with a utilitarian mindset and an eye on efficiency would argue the interaction isn’t even necessary: ‘It’s functionally superfluous, a machine can do what these people do, why do we pay them a wage?’
Next to the tills there’s a small bank of self-service checkout machines that talk at you. I loathe them. I am no technophobe, in fact the opposite: I embrace technology and think much of it marvellous, and I practically live online. Self-service checkouts with their rigid, robotic, soulless adherence to a stubborn protocol, their loud, unmodulated, miscalibrated tone, and their inability to conclude more than one in three procedures without the intervention of one of their human helpers infuriate and offend me. Occasionally, when there’s a long queue for the tills and I have only a few items, I use them, reluctantly, grudgingly, they way you succumb to the Borg. They may be practical and save you a few minutes, if all goes well, but in civilisatory terms they are an abomination.
A while ago there was a woman called Rose, at the same store. She told me she loved travel, and it transpired she used to be a doctor. She was in her sixties, maybe; well-spoken and dignified. She’d taken the job to get out of the house, to have some human contact, she didn’t really need the money, she just wanted to do something rather than sit at home and read. As I watch Shea take a bottle of Pinot Grigio from my basket, handle it like an object of personal value, remove its security contraption as you would take the hat off a child, and carefully place the bottle in a carrier bag, just in the right position so it won’t crush the apples or tilt over the falafel, having put aside the eggs and the salad, of course, because they obviously need to go on top of the yoghurts, I feel me a great glow of love for him. And for Rose. And for the young woman whose name I still haven’t learnt, though she remembers that I’m a writer. And for the middle-aged lady at my local Waitrose, who greets me like a long lost friend when, having been away for a while, I return to her till. And the young man there too who had to tape up his earlobe with a ridiculous blue bandaid because the store manager made him take out his stretch ring, which rendered his ear so much more conspicuous than if he’d just been allowed to wear the ring, but who carried himself, and carried on with his job, in the finest of spirits, because that’s just the kind of pettiness you have to put up with when you’re a little extraordinary, now and then; and the young woman who greets me with an indulgent smile to this day when she sees me, because one early morning, several years ago, having partied rather too hard through the night, I came to her till a little the worse for wear trying to buy a bunch of ‘personal items’ only to realise I didn’t even have my wallet on me… I’m not friends with any of them. I don’t feel that I need to be either. I just need them to be there and to remind me, every so often, how beautiful humans are, even when they perform the apparently simplest of tasks. You can rationalise away the transaction, but you’re a long way from making me love the machine.
I salute you, Shea, and all your wondrous colleagues: you make this world a little more worth living in, indeed.