Helen Sinoradzki, 3/25/2013

Current Occupation: Bookseller

Former Occupation: Technical Writer/Editor, English teacher

Contact Information: Helen Sinoradzki moved to Portland, OR, 15 years ago and plans to stay for the rest of her life. She has been a bookseller at various independent bookstores for 20 years. With the help of the amazing writers at Pinewood Table, she has completed a memoir, Thursday’s Child, and is searching for an agent.


May I Help You?

That Thursday morning, Maggie and I were alone at the tills. We work in a large downtown bookstore with a line of tills in each of the two rooms where customers can check out. We’re close together like racehorses at the gate. When the store is really busy, all the tills are zinging and what’s happening around you is just a hubbub of stray sounds. But when it’s quieter, you can hear your fellow cashiers and their customers.

Right after we logged on that morning, a man stopped to check his bag and told us his ears hurt because he heard profanity outside. He clutched his ears like a baby with an earache and told us three times that they hurt. He didn’t let go of his ears. He said, “You can curse without using profanity.” He hung around like he was waiting for us to tell him what we were going to do about it.

He was followed by a man who said he’d come because his roommates were fighting and he had to find peace. The second man wore glasses with thick black plastic frames. I expected his shirt pocket to have a nerd pack. There was something young about his face, a lack of weathering, even though he looked like he was in his fifties. He said he didn’t like it when his roommates fought, and this time they were really fighting and he had to get out. He wandered off toward the coffee shop. Not much later, he came back and told Maggie he hadn’t found any peace. All day it was like that.

The square-faced man who glowers came, the second day in a row. He darkens the space around him. He answers questions with monosyllables that seem to get stuck behind his teeth. My smile suffocates every time I wait on him, but he’s easier than the woman who pulses suspicion. I see her almost every Friday. She grabs her debit card out of your hand before the transaction processes. She grabs the bag, too, and puts the books in it herself as if she doesn’t want you touching them once she’s bought them. They’re both angry like the man who ranted about government conspiracies. When Priscilla said, “Well, I hope you still have a Merry Christmas,” he shouted, “Santa Claus is a pedophile. What do you think he’s doing with all those kids on his lap?” He ranted about Santa Claus all the way out the door.

The man who wanted peace appeared for the third time when our shift was almost over. Maggie was waiting on a short man with thin brown hair that looked as soft as duck down. He never looked at her, and his body was stiff, as if he were preparing for a blow. He was worried about how much he had left on his gift card and Maggie had to explain the amount several times. He hunched over the counter studying the receipt, but he wouldn’t take it. He said the ink had BPA.

The man who wanted peace said he was heading back to Vancouver, he would take C-Tran because he got lost when he took the MAX, he didn’t like changing to the Yellow Line at Interstate Avenue. The last time he had gotten off at the Expo Center stop, but that wasn’t right and so he’d ridden back a stop, but that wasn’t right either, so he was confused and finally someone called him a cab. The cab driver took him all the way home although he told him he could just pull over on Mill Plain Boulevard, that was really nice wasn’t it, but he was going to stick to buses. But some of the cabs had these special electric things and the driver could just put in the address and it was like you were right on the street. That was really amazing. I kept smiling. The line backs up in ten seconds and Maggie’s customer was still hunched over the counter, but the man who hadn’t found peace was going to stay until he was comforted.

He didn’t stay as long as the woman who thumped a bag full of books in front of me one Friday and said she wanted to return them all. There were eight books and they had been bought less than five minutes before, so I said, “All of them?” She glared at me, then turned and yelled at two young guys who were leaving, “You think it’s okay to insult me because I’m Chicana? You think you can get away with that?” Her voice was loud enough to silence all the other customers waiting, but the guys just kept walking. She told me she wasn’t putting up with insults so yes she was returning all the books. She would quiet down and then erupt. She was there for ten minutes.

Two men in a row showed me concealed weapons permits when I asked for I.D. One of them told me he was a pilot and leaned across the counter to explain why people wanted more gun control. There were the sheep, the wolves, and the wolves in sheep’s clothing. If I got his theory right, I was a sheep because I believed the wolves in sheep’s clothing who had frightened me into wanting more controls on guns. But I didn’t tell him I was a sheep. He was too intense and he had that permit.

One day a woman handed me a gift card and said her husband had died just a few months before and she’d found it while cleaning out his dresser. I told her how sorry I was. That was all right because her face softened. She was like the man who thanks me for smiling each time I wait on him.

But it wasn’t all right the day a woman cried the whole time I helped her. She made no noise, but tears ran down her face. She didn’t wipe them away. Her daughter stood next to her and kept saying, “It’s okay, mama,” and patting her arm the whole time I scanned the books, ran her card, and bagged her purchases. I wanted to ask if there was anything I could do, but the daughter’s look when she caught my eye said, “Don’t ask. Please don’t ask.”

Today was a bad day to have so many walking wounded because of Maggie. The breast cancer she beat a year ago has returned, a different kind this time, more aggressive, and the chemo is taking her down. She’s facing four months of it, every week, five hours. She has a port near her collarbone. She kept rubbing the area around it. It was her second week of chemo and she’d missed school and work already. She said her daughters, who are ten and twelve, were bored with her. She was determined to get through the shift, she needed the money, needed an ordinary day even more. She’s my favorite person there, a former kindergarten teacher who makes customers laugh with her silly jokes and her bursts of song. She talks to everyone as if she knows them. Kids, even the shy ones, love her. Today every time someone asked her how she was, she managed a muted “all right.” When I pointed out a little girl’s sparkly pink slippers, her smile was a ghost smile.

But anyone who didn’t know her would have thought nothing was wrong. I wondered about all the customers who say “fine” when I ask how they are. Another cashier told me he doesn’t ask—he doesn’t want to hear the answers.

10 Comments on “Helen Sinoradzki, 3/25/2013

  1. Helen, you capture the responses and feelings of both cashiers and customers beautifully. The daughter’s “…don’t ask, just don’t ask…” speaks volumes to me. Brava!

  2. People waiting in line to bring you little mysteries?  What a job! Such a great story, Helen. 

    “like racehorses at the gate” Checking out will never be the same.

  3. Bravo Helen! You’ve captured the retail world well and even better, the microcosm of Portland Oregon’s Powells. Nice and quick character sketches that leave an impression, love it.

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