I graduated from college on a Sunday in 1967 and went to work as a grocery store checker the next day. Needless to say, my parents were a little shocked with my choice, but I had a job teaching at the university the next fall, a graduate assistant, and needed something to do that summer. I was newly married and my husband joined the union, another shocker, and went to work in construction for the summer. We became blue collar workers for those few months. The jobs actually paid more than anything else in our university town, probably more than the $1 hour my husband later earned in the pizza place where he worked while going to school. The $1 an hour was the manager’s pay.

Anyway, I got more education that summer, lessons in serving the public and in the way those who do are often treated by their employers. My jobs up until that time had consisted of working for my father, tutoring, and being a student counselor in the dorm. Now I was working on my feet, having to learn the ever-changing prices of produce, and figuring sales tax in my head. We had no computerized cash registers or even cheat sheets for the prices or tax. We were chastised for leaning back on the counter between customers and had only a short break. I became friends with a smart girl who was working there for real, whose husband was a highway patrolman. She was delightful and taught me a lot. I remember the lines of people coming in from the country on Saturdays, the farmers who piled their carts high as they only made it in every so often. One sweet man, who I remember as being round and smelly and shy, would wait to get in my line. My admirer in overalls. There were all types back then in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and that summer was not really so bad. My cute husband would show up dirty from construction and stand at the side watching me before we went home to our duplex to laugh and play, our first summer as semi-grownups. My reality check came when I told the boss I was quitting, that I had a job at the university teaching. His treatment of me changed and it made me mad. He treated me differently for that last two weeks, more respectfully, as he still treated the others, including my friend, with disdain. I felt the injustice, the hypocrisy, and never forgot it.

I became a firm believer that everyone should have to be in a public service job at least once in his or her life.. My children all worked in retail, restaurants, or gyms, facing the public from their teens. Anybody who has ever had to serve the public has stories to tell, stories that can bring up anger, sadness, laughter. You learn how inconsiderate people can be as well as how thoughtful. You learn how cheap they can be and how generous. You learn how you can’t judge a person’s character by how well they are dressed or how much money they spend. You learn what it feels like to be ignored, treated like you’re invisible.

Here’s my son, working in a bakery. He worked in several bakeries through the years, dealing with a public who could be critical and insensitive when his voice changed, damaged by radiation treatments. Amazing how callous people can be, people educated enough to know better.


For several years, I owned a gift shop and dealt with mostly nice people, although you never knew who was going to walk through the door. One of the things I told my employees, who were my children and my close friends, was that you can’t take anything personally if someone treats you badly. It has nothing to do with you, they don’t even know you. They may have had a bad day or be facing something really sad in their life. Or they may actually not be a very nice person. I mean, this was a pretty neat store and we still had people who acted like that, really. They could be demanding, irrational, try to cheat us, steal from us, huffy and indignant, or the extreme opposites of that. They also told us stories about their lives, whether we wanted to hear them or not. There were times I didn’t know if people came in to buy gifts or for counseling. I’m sure waiters, maids, clerks, hairdressers and others know what feeling.

I have become a more generous tipper, a more friendly customer, a person who thanks clerks with a smile. At my worst, I am merely quiet, absorbed in some personal thoughts, hoping I at least made friendly eye contact and smiled. But, I am ever mindful of what these wonderful people deal with every day at salaries that are lower than they should be, with bosses who may not treat them with the respect they deserve. It’s true that people who deal with machines are always paid better than people who deal with people, a sad commentary on the human race.

Remember this when you are served by someone. The public, the public that nobody wants to deal with, is YOU!