When the supermarket's automatic doors swung open, I entered and heard a distant, strained female voice. "Hello, sir. How are you?" The anxious greeting didn't come from a long lost friend or an extroverted, fellow shopper. It came from a young girl, about fifty feet away. Her store uniform was covered with a full-length, bright-red apron and she was busy bagging groceries for a shopper when I walked into her world. She smiled, stopped bagging and waited, for me to answer. Slowing my step, I sent a half-hearted wave in her direction -still trying to make sense of her enthusiasm. My wave seemed to satisfy her, and she continued her cheery bagging. This girl was too young to be flirting with me and, while I have a decent opinion of myself, my entrance to the store wasn't worth the celebration that was apparently happening in her head.
I walked on autopilot, so engrossed in figuring out her motive that I collided with the produce manager who jogged into me from around the apple counter. With a label gun tucked under his arm while he read an inventory sheet, he too, had been preoccupied. He wiped his free wet hand on his red apron and immediately begged for blame: "Oh, I am so sorry, sir. Completely my fault, sir. Sir, are you alright?"
"Yes, thanks. I'm OK."
"Well, sir, if you need anything at all, just let me know, sir." His face beamed at me, and he waited for me to make the first move as if it would dismiss him. I turned away, unfreezing him to jog, zigzagging through the other shoppers.
Something strange was in the air. Employees in this supermarket had never slobbered over me in this way. And now this guy is calling me "sir," with respect, like I'm a ranking officer.
Turning into the pasta and salad dressing aisle, a stumpy, grinning woman at the opposite end spotted me. She wore the now-familiar, red apron and scurried in my direction. "Welcome! Can I help you find something, sir?" she asked.
"No, thank you. I'm absolutely fine," I said, hoping my certainty would end our conversation.
She held a hand up to stop me. "Please wait, let me get that..." She snatched a coupon from the floor near my feet and made a big show of tucking it into her red apron's pocket. "Don't want you to slip and hurt yourself! Thank you for shopping with us! Have a nice day, sir!" She grinned so large that her gums dwarfed her teeth, and then she was gone.
I reached around and felt my back to see if someone had stuck a Post-It on me that I guessed might say, "Love to be approached. Don't know what I want. Help me find it." My shirt-back was bare.
I meandered over to a place near the meat counter, nibbling my cheek, and having completely forgotten what I needed to buy. The dramatic new infusion of "supermarket love" had me reeling and I just needed a moment to get myself together.
The quiet moment I craved was interrupted by another voice. "Colorado River sockeye today, sir -wild, not farm-raised. Do you enjoy salmon, sir?" I glanced back over each shoulder -certain I had stepped between the "red-aproned" butcher and someone who wanted a conversation with him. He cured my confusion by pointing at me and saying, "Yes, you, sir!"
"No... no, I'm fine. Thanks anyway."
"If you ever change your mind, I'll be right here waiting for you." He winked. His promise to wait for me felt creepy. Not hairy-spider-creepy. More like girlfriend-you-dumped-won't-accept-it-creepy. And I thought it was rude for store employees to holler out suggestions, putting shoppers publicly on the spot. What if my wife had sent me to pick up some, you know, feminine "things" that were on special? Would an employee in the hygiene aisle holler out the origin of the most recent batch to me?
So as not to set off a creepy butcher, I tried to appease him by admitting that I did like salmon, but simply didn't need any today. I told him it was not his salmon, it was me. With a slow nod, he said, "Right here waiting for you. You said you love it." A chill shot through me. I backed away, bumping into another red-apron wearer who nearly drowned me with apologies.
See, in the good ol' days, store employees ignored you. If you couldn't find what you wanted, you went home with your money still in your pocket. There were no chatty, fish-suggesting, coupon-snatching, military-talking, shopper-lovers who smothered you and threatened to wait forever until you come back to them.
At the checkout counter a sixth person in a red apron was far too nice to me. "Find everything, darlin'?" she squeaked. I nodded and avoided eye contact because my panic was ready -it just needed a trigger. I took a deep breath that only helped me feel more light-headed. I was obviously the only shopper who was noticing the glaring signs of a Stepford supermarket. My game plan was to bolt if any of the red-garbed Stepford employees malfunctioned and began repeating a stuck word. I peered toward the front door and noted that the path was clear except one red apron, on her knees, straightening the newspaper rack. She would probably duck when I tried to hurdle her -so she was OK. Now, red aprons seemed to be everywhere. They were coming closer and closing me in. I saw them whispering to one another, plotting, planning and scheming to question, help and respect me to death.
A teenage boy in the blood-red apron was bagging my groceries. He looked at me and paused. "Sir, please tell me your last name."
"Neil," I obeyed -hoping my compliance would keep everything calm.
"Thank you for shopping with us, Mr. Neil. May I help you to your car?"
"NO!" I blurted. I stepped over to him. "Tell me... Do they make you to ask me my name?" His mouth morphed from a practiced, fake smile to a strained smile. He glanced to the ceiling and back to me in a blink. His eyes were pleading -or warning.
"Why, no, Mr. Neil," he replied, failing to convince me. I leaned close to him and dropped to a whisper. "Are you in any physical danger and shall I contact the police?"
He laughed. "Why of course not, Mr. Neil. Here ya go, Mr. Neil. Have a nice day!" He handed me my tiny package of sockeye salmon that had helped me break up with the creepy butcher.
I left the supermarket, half-expecting a farewell chorus from the red-apron crew as I passed through the exit door. I took the long way to my car to avoid three red aprons who were roaming the parking lot -as if to collect shopping carts, but, no doubt, were searching for another human to smother with affection.
When I got home, I saw my neighbor, Jose, standing in his driveway. I walked over and shared the story of our supermarket's orgy of kindness. He said, "You know why they started that don't you?"
"Because they're robots?"
"No, that store uses secret shoppers. If any employee is rude to a secret shopper they get in big trouble -might even get fired."
"Ohhh, I see. So the smiles and helpfulness are all motivated by fear?"
"You got it," Jose said. The phone rang in his house and he took off -clutching his gift of creepy salmon.
I went home feeling better. Whew! For a while there I thought the employee kindness was genuine and offered with no motive. How odd would that have been? Silly me. I should have known the love needed a reason.