change at the liquor store

From my place in line I squinted with skepticism. The guy in front of me who’d just purchased his single 375 milliliter volume had turned back to the cashier and asked how much cash he’d given her. He was inspecting the change in his palm.

The cashier was momentarily frozen. There were calculations whirling in her head, both strategic and mathematical. She pondered, as though this were a negotiation. Or, as if it were about to be.

She answered: ten dollars. “Two fives,” she was sure. She looked mostly sure as her body stood firm but turned slightly away. She stated it again to increase the level of confidence, both for her and for the customer.

He replied, “I’m sure I just gave you a five and a one.”

There was another moment of pause as the cashier and I recognized what we were anticipating was not at all what we’d braced ourselves for. The issue was not that he wanted more money, but that he wanted less. He was trying to make the world a little more right, make sure that an underpaid cashier at a state run liquor store did not come up five dollars short in her till at the end of a shift. And, in fact, he insisted that she take the extra bill that he otherwise could have walked out of the store with, along with his bottle of whiskey. He left the paper money on the counter and was out the door.

Sure enough, once the manager was back to help her open the register, long after the customer was god-knows-where, she found a dollar bill where the fives were supposed to be stacked.

I smiled and said that was a good outcome. “Kind of gives you faith in human nature,” I thought out loud. She agreed.

But then she added that, perhaps, altruism was only part of it. He might also have other considerations and calculations: “Of course, he comes in here every day.”

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