Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Heavy Baggage

A few years ago, I started my JCPenney workday with an unpleasant customer encounter, so unpleasant that it took me an hour or so to turn myself around. I hate letting something like that set the tone for my whole day, but if I discard the memory too quickly because of sheer discomfort, I miss an opportunity to learn something. Of course, it’s not always obvious what the lesson is, so forgive me if this article seems befuddled. Befuddlement is a common brain condition in older people whose minds are cluttered with far more experience and data than they know how to use.

So anyway, back to Wednesday morning at JCPenney. I was happily tidying the lingerie department, setting its disorder to right the way only I can (and only I enjoy), when a middle-aged female customer stomped up to me and declared, “JCPenney used to be so good. It used to be I could come here and find a dozen bras in my size. What happened? Why can’t I ever find my size now?”

I glanced up at the woman and made a quick assessment of her, not to judge her but because things like body language and dress give me clues about customers and the best way to handle them. This one was obese, well-dressed in a stylish but individual way. She had a southern accent but not much west Tennessee twang to it, which told me that she had probably traveled more widely than is common in this area (the Kentucky border is about 15 miles from here, but I know local residents who’ve never been to Kentucky). Finally, I noticed that the woman had a grim, even fierce facial expression.

On the basis of all that, I quickly decided that a humorous approach (my favorite) was not going to work with this customer; nor was my fallback “You just let me take care of you, honey,” approach appropriate. I asked her in a neutral tone of voice, “What size are you looking for?”

The bra size she named is an odd one, but hardly surprising considering this woman’s size. I was an odd size too when I was obese, so I felt that I was speaking compassionately when I asked her what features she prefers – underwire, wire free, wide straps, thin straps, etc.

She pointed at what I call a fashion bra (as opposed to an everyday, purely functional one) that I knew isn’t made in her size. “Never mind all that. I want something like this one. Do you have it? Do you have my size?”

I was about four words into my, “No, but let me suggest…” explanation when she burst out angrily, “Just show me! Show me! Where are the size 44’s?”

For a moment I was taken aback by her rudeness. Then I felt my mother’s school-marm manner come over me. I lifted my right index finger to signify, ‘Just one minute’ and said sternly, “If you’ll let me finish my sentence, I’ll tell you.”

The instant that sentence left my mouth, I wanted to grab it back. But as my husband likes to say, you can’t unring a bell. My mind searched frantically for something that would rescue the situation. While I floundered, the customer said, still angrily, “You don’t have it, do you? I knew it! Well, that’s fine. That’s just fine. Thank you very much!” and stomped away toward the exit door.

I thought, “Well, that went well,” and went back to sizing push-up bras.

The worst part of that massive failure to communicate was that I truly felt compassion for that woman and did understand her frustration in searching for clothing to fit and flatter an obese body. I wished I could run after her and say, “I wasn’t always skinny!” but that was my baggage to carry, not hers. I could read all I want into her expression, convinced that I recognized her weight struggles and her desire to blame her obesity on everyone, including JCPenney, but herself – but we were strangers and had no real knowledge of each others’ truths. I’m not even sure of my own truths all the time, never mind truths belonging to a stranger.

My encounter with the angry fat lady that day reminded me that my weight loss surgery helped me lose more than 100 pounds of body weight. It also took some heavy emotional baggage off my hands. I’m not convinced that the baggage leftover from my travels in the land of obesity is entirely and permanently gone. I think it’s stashed away in the attic gathering dust and cobwebs. The keys to all those bags are in a small box in my dresser drawer. They’re unlabeled and jumbled in with house keys, car keys, and a few luggage tags containing defunct addresses. I don’t dare throw that mess of keys out for fear I’ll need them again some day…kind of like my fear that I’ll need my size 24 jeans again some day.

But I’m traveling light these days. A handful of keys that weighs maybe three ounces is a much lighter burden than the beliefs and feelings I used to carry along with those 100 extra pounds.


Hannah Taylor said...

Hi Jean! Glad to have stumbled upon your blog! I was wondering if you feature guest postings. Thanks and have a great day!

Jean said...

How do we know each other, Hannah?