A tiny elderly woman came up the kiosk in the fuel center where I was working. Her face just peeked over the solid part of the wall so I could see her in the window. Her hair was totally white, and she wore glasses. When she began to speak, I could tell English was not her first language. Perhaps French was the language she’d first learned.
Communicating through bulletproof glass is a challenge. I use an intercom system to speak to the customers. When I want to talk, I press a button. When I need to listen, I let go of the button. Sometimes I let go of the button while I’m still talking. Ooops!
The intercom system is old and sometimes fades in and out while someone is talking. Often the customer and I look at each other in confusion. What did you say? I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?
Throw in a hearing loss, a thick accent, or a language barrier, and Houston, we have a problem.
The elderly French (or at least French accented) woman was trying to communicate her needs, but I’ll be damned if I could understand a word she said.
What pump are you on, ma’am? I asked several times.
Maybe she couldn’t understand a word I said.
Finally she was able to communicate that she was on pump 10.
We went through a similar fiasco to figure out how much fuel she wanted to pay for. After some back and forth, we nailed down an amount. Now came the time for her to put the payment in the sliding drawer so I could pull it into the kiosk.
Please put your payment in the drawer, I squawked over the intercom.
The woman looked at me dazed and confused.
Lift the glass, ma’am, I instructed. Put your payment in the drawer.
I heard fumbling around on the other side of the wall, but when I pulled the drawer in, there was no money in it. I pushed the drawer back out.
A line had formed behind the woman. Usually when a customer has trouble with the drawer, someone in line steps up to demonstrate lifting the Plexiglas so payment can be placed in the drawer. On this day, no one took pity on the woman; no one offered to help.
I’ll need you to put your payment in the drawer, I told the woman. Go ahead and lift the glass.
I heard more fumbling on the other side of the wall, but again, the drawer was empty when I pulled it in. I pushed it out again and wondered what to do.
A white-haired man stomped over from the direction of pump 10. He bypassed the line and stepped up to the window next to the elderly woman. He began speaking to her in what sounded like French to me. He was berating her; that much was obvious despite any language barrier. I heard loud shuffling on the other side of the wall, followed by the loud opening of the glass over the drawer, followed by a slamming of the glass strong enough to rattle the metal drawer.
The woman said something sharp to the white-haired man, but he never even looked at her. I gave the woman her receipt (this time she knew to lift the glass to get it from the drawer), and she was on her way.
I felt really embarrassed for the woman and sad for her too. That man (her husband, presumably) had been really mean to her in front of God and everybody. Those of us who witnessed the interaction didn’t need to understand French to know he he’d been ugly.
Before too long, the elderly lady was back at the kiosk for her change. I got it for her and sent it out through the drawer.
Have a nice day, I said at the end of our transaction. I wanted to offer her some small kindness.
I will try, she said. She rolled her eyes in the direction of pump 10. We do our best.
I smiled. I stayed silent, but in my head I agreed. We certainly do our best. Even when our strongest efforts are futile. Even when people stomp over to speak gruffly to us. We do our best. It’s all we can do.