Tag Archives: the Mercantile

Phone Home

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Seven Assorted Colored Rotary TelephonesNot three minutes before the young people walked into the Mercantile, I’d been telling the new camp host how The Big Boss Man did not like visitors using the phone in the store to make calls for any reason he did not consider an emergency. He’d allow phone calls for fire and bleeding, and I bet broken bones would have met his criteria for an emergency, but to him car trouble didn’t count. Car won’t start? Flat tire? Keys locked inside the vehicle? The Big Boss Man thought you should go to the payphone eleven miles away to make your call.

This phone policy put me and the other clerks at the Mercantile in an awkward position. I didn’t want to displease my boss, but I certainly wanted to help people. Also, it wasn’t the boss who had to tell the woman traveling alone who’d locked not just her keys but her phone, her ID, her cash, and her credit cards in her car that she couldn’t use our fully functioning phone—it was the store clerks who had to do the dirty work.

I explained all of this to the new camp host in the course of our conversation, and he just shook his head. He was really into helping people and couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t let a driver having problems with a vehicle call for help.

Just as the camp host left the Mercantile through the back door, three young people walked through the front door. I’m not sure how young the people actually were, but they all looked at least 18 to me. The two women could have been a little younger than 18 or maybe a little older, but I’d be astonished to find out the fellow with them was younger than 22. In any case, the three young people before me appeared to be adults.

The tallest woman stood in front of the counter looking sad. She had straight dark hair and wore a loose shirt over a bikini top. She started talking to me in a voice so low I couldn’t understand her words.

Could you speak up? I asked. I can’t hear you.

She looked completely startled. Maybe I’d spoken too harshly. Maybe she’d learned speaking softly helped her get things she wanted from people. In any case, she raised her voice and started again.

We don’t have any phone service out here, she began.

No one does! I interjected.

And I need to call home to let my parents know I made it to the campground safely, she told me.

A big girl like you? I wanted to say.

How old are you? I wanted to ask. For once I kept my big mouth shut.

If my parents don’t hear from me, they’re going to file a missing person report, she told me. Whether she was exaggerating or if she had really grown up under such helicoptering, I do not know.

I gave her a big speech about my boss and the phone, how he thought it should only be used for emergencies and he definitely would not consider her situation an emergency. I’m going to let you use the phone, I wrapped up my speech, but you CANNOT. TELL. ANYONE.

She solemnly agreed not to tell anyone, and I handed her the phone. She dialed the number, and there was a long wait while the phone rang before the young woman reached her mother’s voicemail. She explained she’d reached the campground, had no phone service, and would not be able to touch base until the next day when she returned to civilization. She hung up the phone, and I was glad the entire interaction was coming to an end. It was time for me to close the store and count the money in the drawer and go home for the day.

But wait! There’s more!

I’d assumed the young woman’s two companions were there for moral support, but no, each of them also wanted to call home and reassure their parents that except for the lack of cell phone service, they were fine. I couldn’t believe this! Grown ass people (or at least it seemed to me) insisting on calling mommy and daddy to check in from the first day of a camping trip! What would they have done if there had been no telephone in the campground?

I let the two other young people use the phone. I couldn’t tell them no after I’d told their friend yes. This was the problem with letting a visitor use the phone—it was never a quick 30 second call; it was always some sort of ordeal.

Where are y’all from? I asked the first young woman as her friends used the phone.

Orange County, she replied.

They were only a few hours from home! They hadn’t even left their home state!

Finally all calls home were complete. The young people thanked me, and I ushered them out so I could close up shop.

As I was closing the front windows, the phone rang inside the store. I ran to get it and answered it using the script taped to the counter, identifying specifically the store where I work and myself, then asking How may I help you?

The woman on the other end of the line seemed flustered. She must have the wrong number, she told me. She thought her son had just called from this number.

I sweetly assured her that he had. There was no cell service up here, so he’d used the store phone to let her know he was ok and that she wouldn’t hear from him again as long as he was up here.

She laughed and agreed that’s what he message had said. (Then why did you call here!?! I wanted to shout, but I held myself in check.) She thought maybe she could catch her son if she called right back.

No, ma’am, I said, he’s already gone, which was the truth.

I’ll be damned! It was some kind of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario.

If you let a gal from the O.C. use the phone, then her two friends will want to use it too, which will make you close the store late. Then the young man’s mother will call back and interrupt your closing procedures with her chatting. She’ll want to talk to her son directly…

I was beginning to understand why The Big Boss Man didn’t want us to let visitors use our phone.

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/seven-assorted-colored-rotary-telephones-774448/.

Cups

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The campground where the Mercantile was located didn’t have running water. It didn’t have running water during the three previous seasons I worked on the mountain. At the beginning of last season The Big Boss man was confident the campground would have running water before Memorial Day. As of late July, the campground was still bone dry. As far as I knew no one was working on the water system. After Independence Day, The Big Boss Man had stopped talking about getting the water to run in the campground.

Almost every day, people came into the Mercantile looking for a faucet or a water fountain. I’m sure the camp hosts saw as many (probably more) people looking for water than I did. Visitors wanted to fill a water bottle or wash their hands. Every time someone asked for water in the campground, I had to explain there was none.

We sold cold water in the Mercantile, and a significant portion of people did buy it to drink. However, fewer people (significantly fewer people) spent $2.50 for 16.9 ounces or $3.95 for a gallon of water to use to wash their hands.

One Wednesday afternoon, I was working alone in the Mercantile. Two older men came through the door and ignored my greeting. Both men were probably in their early 60s, and each was wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt despite the heat. Their clothes were not trendy, and while not shabby, didn’t look new. These men had not dressed up to come up the mountain. They looked like hunters or fishermen (or maybe both), working class outdoorsmen. The skin on the second man’s face was a strange mottled red, as if his sunburn had been sunburned, and he wore an expression of anger or maybe just impatience.

I could tell they were looking for something, but before I could offer to help, their eyes lit up. They’d seen what they were seeking.

They made a beeline to the beverage cooler and considered their options. I heard some mumble grumbles about the cost of the water. I understood their consternation, but there was nothing I could do to change the price.

The first man who’d come through the door carried the gallon of water up to the register where I scanned the barcode and asked for $3.95.

Clear Plastic Cup on Gray SurfaceDo you have cups? The fellow making the purchase said.

We have coffee mugs right over there, I said while pointing helpfully,

No, said the red-faced man. Paper cups. To drink this, he said gesturing to the gallon of water.

Oh no, I said. We don’t have anything like that.

I guess they figured if they paid more for water than they paid for gasoline, cups to drink it should come with the purchase.

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/sunset-cup-water-drink-87383/.

Whistleblowers

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The most annoying items sold at the Mercantile were whistles.

The first season the store was open, we sold a plastic device consisting of a whistle, compass, thermometer, and fold-out magnifying glass. The whole deal was on a clip so it could be snapped onto a backpack or zipper pull. We displayed these items in a small basket on a low shelf. Sometimes little kids picked one up and blew into the whistle. Usually when this happened, the kids’ parents didn’t want to buy the whistle, and who could blame them? If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want it further annoying me by tweeting on a whistle for hours a day. If one of the other store clerks or I could intercept the blown whistle before it was tossed back into the basket, we’d squirt it with some Windex, wipe it with a paper towel, and call it clean enough to sell.

Late in the first season, the Mercantile received whistles carved to look like bears, owl, eagles, hummingbirds, and blue jays. Made in China, hung on long cords to be worn around the neck, and brightly painted, kids loved these. The problem was, if a kid blew a whistle and the parents wouldn’t buy it, it was difficult to clean. Can mouth germs on wood be killed without damaging the wood? We tried to solve the whistle problem in the Mercantile’s second season by hanging them out of the reach of little kids.

We thought we’d solved the problem. Turns out medium-size kids, big kids, and even adults like to blow whistles they have no intention of buying.

Personally, I would never go into a store and blow on a whistle because yuck! How many people before me had the same idea and already put their mouths on the whistle? Germy!

If the other clerks or I saw someone messing with the whistles, we told them if they blew a whistle, they would have to purchase it. Sometimes we even used cute little slogans we made up like You blow it, you buy it or You try it, you buy it. Some people got very defensive and told us they had no intention of blowing the whistle. You’d be surprised how many people do blow them, we told the defensive customers.

I was surprised by how many parents didn’t think it was gross to put back a whistle their kid had put in its mouth. One dad picked out whistles for his kids who were both under seven years old. He handed the whistles to the kids and let them blow on them for several minutes. Then the kids saw the other whistles and decided they’d rather have bears than eagles.

Can we switch these? the dad asked me.

I had to tell him no. Your kids already had their mouths on them, I explained while he looked perplexed. He just didn’t see the problem with selling something that had been in the mouth of his child to someone else. I’m not even a germophobe, but yuck!

Adults blew the whistles too, then didn’t want to buy them. At best, they just blew air through the whistle, then assured me they didn’t put their mouth on it when I called them on their action.

Hello, I wanted to say. You just blew your germs into that whistle!

They must be like my five year-old childhood neighbor who got downright pissed at the suggestion she had germs. I do NOT have germs! she howled before running home to her mother. I wasn’t taunting her, just telling her the facts.

Some adults full-on wrapped their lips around the whistles and blew. The other clerk had it out with a grown man one morning while working alone. He blew a whistle and she told him he had to buy it since she couldn’t sell it to anyone else. The guy moaned and groaned and complained about how he didn’t understand why he had to buy it. My coworker stood her ground despite her pounding heart. Even the guy’s friend told him he needed to buy the whistle. Finally the guy did pay for it, but left none too happy.

One Saturday afternoon in early August of my second season in the Mercantile, I almost lost my mind over whistles.

It started when three little boys came into the store unsupervised. The oldest was maybe ten, the middle kid eight or nine, and the littlest boy probably six. I was working the register, so I said to the other clerk, Unsupervised children.

I know, she said, but she didn’t walk over to keep an eye on them.

I saw the boys were near the whistles, but I was busy with a customer, so I didn’t say anything to the boys. Then I heard it: the unmistakable tweet! of a whistle being blown.

You’re going to have to buy that whistle now that you’ve blown it, I called out, and everyone in the store went silent.

When I looked over, the big boy and the little boy had stepped away, leaving the middle boy standing alone holding an eagle whistle. He’d gone pale beneath his freckles.

I can’t sell it now that you’ve had your mouth on it, I told the boy sternly.

Can’t you wash it? the big boy pleaded.

No, I said. It’s wood.

At that point the big and little boy left their friend behind and walked out the Mercantile’s door.

I don’t have any money, the whistleblower said, then I’m really sorry.

I figured getting his parents would be fruitless. Anyone who’d send three little boys into a store alone probably wasn’t going to pony up for a whistle the kid had blown. Besides, the kid’s apology had softened my heart. I think the kid really was sorry, at least that he’d been caught, at least that he was in trouble.

I held out my hand for the whistle, which the boy handed over. I accept your apology, I said, but next time you go into a store, you better think about where you put your mouth.

I thought surely I was done with the whistle drama for the day, but there was a little bit more right before I closed the store. The other clerk had gone home, so I had to deal with the drama alone.

The family came in about 15 minutes before closing time. Judging from the way the women were dress, I was confident they were Muslim. In addition to a mom and dad who were probably in their early 30s, a girl who was maybe nine, and a boy who was probably 12, the man pushed an old woman in a wheelchair.

The family stopped by the wooden whistles, and I thought I heard a tweet. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t say anything. The family made their way slowly through the entire store before the man came up to the counter to make the purchase. He had a whistle in his small pile, so if someone in the party had blown it, at least he was buying it.

I thought the family would leave once the purchase was made, but no. All but the young boy went back to the whistle display. I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking to each other, so I figured they’d decided the family needed more whistles.

The younger woman took two whistles from their hooks, put her mouth on the business end of one, and blew. Tweet! She handed the whistle to her young daughter who followed her mother’s example. Tweet! The girl handed the whistle back to her mother who blew into the second whistle. Tweet! She handed the whistle to the girl who also blew it. Tweet!

The family was delighted by the mother/daughter whistle duo. I could see the delight on their faces. Mom was delighted. Daughter was delighted. Dad was delighted. Grandma sitting in her wheelchair was delighted. (The young boy was nowhere near the whistle fest, so I didn’t see his face, but maybe I would have seen embarrassment there instead of delight.)

I would have been delighted too, if they had brought the two whistles (each priced at $8.95) to the register for purchase. Instead any potential for delight I felt turned to chagrin when I saw Mom hand the whistles to Dad and Dad reach to rehang them on their hooks.

I’m sorry, I called out. I can’t sell those after you’ve had them in your mouths. I held out my hand so Dad could give them to me.

Every member of the family (except the boy, who I still couldn’t see) looked confused. Why can’t she sell the whistles now? their faces seemed to ask.

I just hoped they wouldn’t think I was being weird because they were Muslim. Of course, I would have reacted the same way if they were white or Latinx, African American or Asian, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. The problem was not where they were from or the religion they practiced. The problem was that they were human, and humans got germs!

The next day, the other clerk and I decided the only solution was to put the whistles in the glass display gas with the knives, the hand sanitizer, and the Claritin. If even adults can’t resist blowing into a whistle they haven’t yet purchased, our only choice was to keep the enticing toys under lock and key.

Photo courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/whistle-attention-warning-referee-2475470/.