Generally, I’ve found that shop assistants fall into four main categories (there are probably numerous sub-divisions, but I’ll leave the geeks to ponder what they might be): you have those who despise everything about their job and show it in their body language, their facial expressions, or their slow lumbering walk to the till with no apology for making you wait (there is something so true and right about these people’s understandable hatred of serving the general public though, so for this I have respect), those who acknowledge you and care a bit (or at least bother to make eye-contact), those who make conversation with every single customer whether the customer likes it or not (they especially adore the old ones, who they can mine for all sorts of information…which is really irritating when you’re stuck behind an older citizen who really wants to talk) and the last kind who you have to watch out for the most: the assistants who are oddly happy and up-beat for no obvious reason, and seemed to really want to know you. I’m talking consistently happy, in a way which is unlike almost anyone in my life (who knows, maybe I just always walk in when they are about to finish their shift, or perhaps that’s just their personality, but somehow I doubt it. Surely the world cannot really be this cruel?). And today, at the newsagent’s, I came across a particularly happy — make that obscenely happy — shop assistant. One of the most extreme examples who I really do dread. Do not get me wrong: I love nothing more than for a sales assistant to be welcoming, but there is a big difference between being welcoming and being welcoming in a creepy, sinister way…
As soon as I walk into one of these situations — almost like a having a great big hug imposed upon my personal space — I fear the inevitable: the sales assistant looking at me in a way in which I cannot ignore — or will not, because I was brought up too well-mannered, I have no doubt — and talking to me; and not shutting up. Somehow, perhaps by genetic intuition, the worst of these offenders know that to really freak a customer out, the best method is to adopt the guise and mannerisms of a close friend and ask a question. Something open-ended and unnecessarily kind like “How was your day?” will do it perfectly. And this was to be the technique used on me tonight. All I wanted to do was buy a packet of McCoys salt and vinegar flavour, and now here I was forced to consider how my day had been — all of this against my will.
So I said: “It was average, thanks,” and Immediately I knew I was done for and realised my mistakes. Two of them and they were in no way small! Firstly I had gone and done the ultimate stupid thing of answering in a kind of vague, mysterious way. A way which begged yet more questions to be asked. Had I said “OK” or “Horrendous thanks for asking, my cat was squashed flat by an articulated lorry. Twice,” I’d have shut the conversation down before it could even get started. But by saying “average” I had, instead, opened up the flood gates of mystery and intrigue, playing right into this sucker’s hands! Why was it average? I could almost see his warped mind processing. Fortunately he didn’t say it loud. Unfortunately he did laugh, give me a weird kind of I-know-you-from-somewhere glance, and grab a packet of Fruit Pastilles. Yeah, that old trick. It appeared I was to be groomed.
I had to think very, very fast. “No thanks,” I said, “I don’t like Fruit Pastilles.” That was definite, nice and definite. It was also a lie, a massive ENORMOUS lie — I had gone through a fairly wild period way back in 1991 where I could think of nothing but them — but he did not know that; this I told myself repeatedly. I had also ensured a stoney and impenetrable gaze and was confident that this shop assistant, however eager to make conversation he was, was unable to read my feelings. Or at least the feelings he could read would be pretty obvious: these blatantly obvious signs would say things like Go away and Leave me alone and Stop looking at me right now, weirdo! I was better at this repelling shop assistants thing than I thought; I reminded myself to give me more credit.
It was then that the shop assistant — a kind of androgynous, overly tall, Avatar-esque ponytailed male who I had thought might be a female in the same vain as Hilary Swank in Big Girls Don’t Cry — went in for the second blow of attack: the guilt trip. He needed to shift the Fruit Pastilles today, he said, twice. They were on special offer and were only £1, which as anybody knew — even if they found the sweets repulsive — was a damn good bargain which only a fool could pass up. A serious conundrum that worked on my tendency to buy sugary things, even when I know I absolutely shouldn’t. The cruelest kind of grooming, almost certainly intended to lure me into the world of part-time shop work (as a 16-year-old I had done a year in my local Spar, and after a succession of elderly people offering me “the right change” at the till — which was demonic and didn’t add or subtract at all for you — that was enough), it seemed.
And I’ll admit I almost caved at one point. Who wouldn’t have? I almost gave in and bought two packets of Fruit Pastilles. But then I found myself in a new place, mentally. A place where a box of Fruit Pastilles that cost £1 and were sitting there all alone just looked desperate and pathetic and…well, a bit pointless, really, like those trousers which I see people wearing which aren’t quite shorts, and definitely don’t qualify as trousers. I won’t ‘t lower myself to that level, I told myself, and with that I asked for a bag — why I have no idea, and it all got a bit bizarre and embarrassing when he gave me a tiny bag with no handles, no bigger than the packet of crisps I had purchased… — and went on my way, proud of myself for not buying into the shop assistant’s scam but also a bit annoyed, I’ll admit, because as I said before, I do love Fruit Pastilles.